The Bisons will be wrapping up another disappointing season at home this week, but it’s a pattern the Toronto Blue Jays hope to end quickly. It’s reasonable to expect all kinds of changes in both the personnel and philosophy of the Blue Jays’ minor league operations before the 2017 season begins.
First-year President Mark Shapiro continues to put his stamp on this organization after 25 years in Cleveland, and turnover took hold last week when the Blue Jays fired minor league field coordinator Doug Davis, amateur scouting director Brian Parker and national scouting cross-checker Blake Davis.
Doug Davis had been in his current role, one of the top rungs of the development staff, since 2009. It’s the first major change in the player development team since Gil Kim was brought in from Texas last winter to head the department.
I’d look for sweeping changes on the field in the player development ranks as well as Shapiro and Kim get more of their own people in place. As we learned during the halcyon days with Cleveland from 1995-2005, Shapiro believes in winning in the minor leagues and that hasn’t happened much in this organization in recent years.
You would thus have to think it’s highly unlikely Gary Allenson is back for a fourth season as Bisons manager after this club’s second-half collapse.
Through 80 games, the Bisons were set up well with a 46-34 record and were just two games out of first place. But their offense has gone completely south since the all-star break and the club is likely to finish below .500 for the second straight season and the sixth time in the last nine years, dating to the Indians’ 2008 swan song.
This has been a hard club to figure. The Blue Jays assembled on paper what rated as one of the better starting staffs in recent years in Buffalo, though pitching prospects like Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Kendall Graveman and Jeff Hoffman have all been traded in the last two years. Veteran Wade LeBlanc, in fact, was in line to start the Triple-A All-Star Game until Seattle offered him a big-league job and the Blue Jays correctly allowed him out of his deal with them.
Jesus Montero is in line for a batting title and Matt Dominguez could end up with the Herd’s first 20-homer season since 2013. Still, the club has been oddly flat many nights and there’s been too many times you see players making mental mistakes or simply not running hard to first base.
The Bisons were shut out or scored just one run 11 times during an ugly 9-19 July, and have done that six more times in August entering the weekend. When you don’t score, it makes everything else look bad.
After the 46-34 start, the team went 18-34 in its next 52 games. It’s one of the worst meltdowns out of contention in the franchise’s modern era, akin to the 20-loss Augusts of 1988 and 1993 and the second-half disaster of 2003 that saw a flurry of callups to Cleveland turn a 48-30 team into a 73-70 finish.
The Bisons went to the playoffs nine times in 11 years with Cleveland, winning three league championships. In a stunning reversal of that trend, their 11-season absence from the postseason now rates as the longest drought in the International League.
The Blue Jays need to work on their prospect pool, as many of their recent drafts have focused on pitchers and there simply aren’t many great positional players, especially power hitters, in their organization. They also need to develop more young talent in their managerial and coaching pool in the minor leagues.
Shapiro and Atkins have been in observation mode for their first year on the job, with several moves made in the club’s business department and last week’s shake-up the biggest thus far in development and scouting. It stands to reason this is a key winter in all areas of the Blue Jays, be it determining what to do with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion or formulating new strategies in the minor leagues.
Herd ticket talk
It will be interesting to watch how the Bisons do at the gate on their final homestand, which closes Thursday with Fan Appreciation Night. Barring any rainouts, they could approach the 550,000 mark in tickets sold and maybe even close the season with their highest total since they sold 575,296 in 2010, the lone year they were in playoff contention while a partner with the New York Mets.
The per-game average should end up in the 8,000 range, essentially where it’s been all four years with Toronto. The team entered the weekend fifth in the 14-team IL in average attendance, behind Charlotte, Indianapolis, Lehigh Valley and Columbus.
As part of its announcement of the 2017 schedule last week, the team also said it is moving into Phase 2 of the Coca-Cola Field seating project. Nearly 2,900 seats will be replaced in the lower half of Sections 115, 117 and 119 on the third-base side and Sections 116, 118, 120 and 122 on the first-base side.
The 22-inch seats will be identical to the ones installed in the home plate area for the 2015 season. The seats are wider than their predecessors and will thus reduce the capacity of the ballpark next year from the current 17,600 to 16,907.
As for the ’17 schedule, the Bisons have to be happy that 33 of their 71 home dates are on either a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. They can’t be happy that they open with an eight-game homestand April 6-13, play 29 home games combined in April and May − and just 27 downtown in July and August. Ouch.
A toast to the voice
A tip of the cap from this corner to Bisons play-by-play man Ben Wagner, who is wrapping up his 10th season as the voice of Herd, both on WWKB Radio and on the television side with Time Warner Cable. Wagner, 36, gets plenty of ribbing about the fact the team’s playoff drought just about coincides with his arrival here in 2007 from Class A Lakewood (N.J.) of the South Atlantic League.
But the fact he’s never called a playoff game in Buffalo hardly diminishes the work Wagner has done in building the trust and support of the audience in the difficult role of following Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Rosenhaus to the microphone.
When legendary voice Pete Weber left for the NHL following the 1995 season, the prevailing thought was how difficult it would be for anybody to replace him. Rosenhaus did and built a Hall of Fame career of his own over 11 seasons that led to a gig in the big leagues in Cleveland. When Rosenhaus left, the same was said of him.
That just shows you the job Wagner has done because the feeling is going to be the same: When that inevitable big league call comes, there are going to be some very big shoes to fill in the Bisons’ broadcast booth again. The play-by-play man is the voice of summer for your town and Buffalo has been exceptionally lucky to have this trio shepherding the Herd since it returned to Triple-A in 1985.
• Mark your calendars: The postseason begins on Oct. 4 with the AL Wild Card Game on TBS, followed by the NL game Oct. 5 on ESPN. The AL Division Series opens on Oct. 6 with the NL series starting Oct. 7. The American League Championship Series opens Oct. 14 and will be shown on TBS. The NLCS starts Oct. 15 and will air entirely on FOX or Fox Sports 1.
Media Day for the World Series is Oct. 24 and Games 1-2 will be in the American League park on Oct. 25-26. A potential Game Seven would be Nov. 2.
• Repeating: In 2016, there should be no blackouts on MLB’s Extra Innings or internet packages. You can watch every Blue Jays game all season in Buffalo − except when they went to Cleveland for three thrillers last weekend. It’s absurd.
• Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Roberts has done an amazing job pushing the Dodgers to the top of the NL West this year, even in the face of the Yasiel Puig controversy and Clayton Kershaw’s balky back. Now he has a new challenge in the clubhouse in the wake of the trade of uber-popular backup catcher A.J. Ellis to Philadelphia.
Longtime Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz will help offensively, but Ellis was Kershaw’s personal catcher and the star pitcher reportedly wept at the news. Several other players were angry at the need for the deal. The first night returns were poor: The Dodgers came within one out of being no-hit Thursday by Giants pitcher Matt Moore. Roberts will need to rally the troops after this speed bump. Again. He’s been doing it all year. No reason to think he can’t continue.