The smiles are big, even if the air is cold on baseball fields in April. The new season always brings freshness and possibility, and if you play in Western New York, a bit of snow.
But there's something that feels more promising about the Buffalo Bisons as they begin 2018 with a scheduled 6:05 p.m. first pitch Friday in Rochester against the Red Wings at Frontier Field. There's a genuine belief this club could make the playoffs thanks to a roster loaded with top prospects and just enough veteran players to add the necessary perspective.
The Bisons last qualified for the playoffs in 2005. Then an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, the Bisons finished first in the IL North with a record of 82-62, losing in the semifinals to the Indianapolis Indians.
That's a long drought, even by Buffalo sports standards.
It's been a while since Buffalo baseball fans have watched a winning season as well. The last time the Bisons finished above .500 was 2014, the team's second season with the Toronto Blue Jays. That year they went 77-66 finishing third in the division.
In the three seasons since then, the Bisons have won just 46.4 percent of their games with a 199-230 mark.
So why the renewed enthusiasm for this season? Last year's Triple-A rookies have a year of experience and second-year Bisons manager Bobby Meacham has set the tone for higher expectations.
"I think I started the right process last year," Meacham said Thursday afternoon at Coca-Cola Field before the Bisons' took batting practice indoors. "What I was trying to do is let the players know me so they know what's expected of them. I know when I was player, it was always easier to play when I knew what the manager wanted so I could have a starting point to go from and not wonder if he wants me to bunt here or wonder if he wants me to pitch around this hitter type of thing.
"I'm just trying to let them know me and the expectations I have for them as a club. We talked a little bit about it yesterday in a team meeting that we're just going to reach a little higher. We're going to demand a lot more of them than maybe they're used to seeing. Their work habits are great. They always have been, but I want that in games to make a noticeable difference to people who come to watch us play. We're going to try and be a little different than everybody else and just raise the bar a little higher."
That high bar begins with a strong lineup of prospects scheduled to begin the season in Buffalo.
Outfielder Anthony Alford will likely see time in Buffalo once he's healthy. Alford suffered a hamstring injury in spring training and the No. 3 prospect in the Blue Jays organization should begin his season in Buffalo. Alford, a 23-year-old outfielder, made his Major League debut last spring, getting the call from Double-A to Toronto. He played in four games before breaking his wrist. Alford returned to action in July and played the final three games of the season with the Bisons.
Already on the roster and ready to go is catcher Danny Jansen, the No. 6 prospect in the organization. A rising star last year, Jansen worked his way from Single-A Dunedin to Double-A New Hampshire then received his first Triple-A promotion, playing in 21 games for the Herd. Over his 104 combined games last season, Jansen hit .323 with 10 home runs, 25 doubles and 48 runs driven in. He walked (41) more times than he struck out (40).
Ryan Borucki, the No. 8-ranked prospect, made his Triple-A debut last season pitching six innings for the Herd. The left-handed starter is considered to have the best change up in the Jays' system.
Also ranking in the top-20 prospects list are infielder Richard Urena (No. 11), although he's back in extended spring training starting the season on the disabled list, catcher Reese McGuire (No. 14), first baseman Rowdy Tellez (No. 15), and right-handed pitcher Carlos Ramirez (No. 17).
But those rankings, well, they don't mean all that much to Meacham.
"It's something sometimes to hang your hat on if you're a player to know that an organization thinks highly of you, the general public thinks highly of you," Meacham said. "It's kind of like being drafted. It's kind of cool but all it means is somebody likes you because they saw something but it doesn't mean you've done anything."
What it does mean, though, is competition. An influx of prospects means competition for playing time and that in turn helps everyone get better.
"Competition is not there when you don't have a ton of prospects," Meacham said. "It's not that guys are complacent but they know they're going to play. Now, when you have prospects, when you have a lot of guys you can choose from, the competition to determine who's going to play gets better because these guys try to get better and better every day so they can show that they deserve to be in the lineup every day."
Dalton Pompey is with Urena in extended spring training after being placed on the 10-day disabled list, but the Bisons got a boost late in the spring when the Blue Jays signed infielder Danny Espinosa. The 30-year-old has eight years of MLB service, mostly with the Washington Nationals. Last year he played for the Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays. His experience can help ground the group of prospects looking for their first shot at the major leagues.
Relief pitching looks to be strong again for the Bisons and could be a strength of the club, provided the Blue Jays stay healthy so as to avoid pillaging the Herd's bullpen.
Lefty Matt Dermody returns for his third season with the Bisons and had a total of 23 relief appearances with the Blue Jays in 2017. Ramirez did not allow a run – earned or unearned – in seven relief outings with the Bisons last season and pitched 12 games for the Blue Jays after a September call-up. Coming to Buffalo with MLB experience is righty Al Alburquerque, who spent parts of the last seven seasons in the big leagues including appearing in the postseason with the Detroit Tigers.
The starting rotation begins with Joe Biagini, who made 60 relief appearances for the Blue Jays in 2016 and followed that with 44 games, including 18 starts, in Toronto in 2017.
Borucki struck out 157 batters last season, including six in his Bisons debut. Chris Rowley made his MLB debut last season while Deck McGuire was a first-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2014. Righty Taylor Guerrieri rounds out the rotation.