Tonawanda News

April 3, 2014

Bisons Preview: Team has tools to contend for postseason

BY DAVE RICCI scoreboard@niagara-gazette.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — What will Year Two of the Blue Jays-Bisons connection bring? If all goes well, it should result in the Herd’s first trip to the post season since 2005.

“We have a good bunch of guys,” said new manager Gary Allenson. “They play the game the right way. They’re into the game. They get along with each other. They have fun. Let’s face it, when you’re at it for six months with spring training...it becomes a little bit of a grind where it’s almost like you’re punching a clock. If you can go out there and have fun doing it, it makes it a lot easier.”

Pitching

Opening the season with two of the Blue Jays top 10 prospects is a great indicator of where the pitching will be. RHP Marcus Strohman was ranked by Baseball America as the No.2 prospect in the Jays’ system, while lefty Sean Nolin holds down the No.10 spot. Strohman, who will get the nod on Opening Day, fanned 129 batters in 111.2 innings with Double-A New Hampshire last season.

“I had no idea. It was a shock to me,” said Strohman. “I knew I was going to be in Triple-A and in the rotation at some point. I didn’t know I was going to have Opening Day. But it’s definitely exciting.”

Strohman, the Jays No.1 pick in 2012, went 9-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 20 games with the Fishercats last year.

“He’s pretty calm, cool and collected even when things aren’t going well for him,” said Allenson, who managed New Hampshire last season. “He doesn’t ride that mental roller coaster. He let’s it roll right off him.”

RHP Kyle Drabek, LHP Ricky Romero and RHP Liam Hendricks round out the rotation.

The bullpen will feature RHP Mickey Storey (70 strikeouts last season) and RHP Neil Wagner who had an 0.70 ERA and was a perfect 16-for-16 in save opportunities during the first two months of 2013 before being called up to Toronto.

RHP Marcus Walden (3.71 ERA) and led all Eastern League pitchers with 162.1 innings pitched. John Stilson, the Jays No.21 prospect, led all Bison relievers with six wins in 2013.

Infield

The Bisons lineup has already taken its first big hit when shortstop Jonathan Diaz was called up to Toronto after Jose Reyes re-injured his hamstring and landed on the DL again. An excellent fielder, Diaz was projected to be the rock of the Bisons defense. Now the pressure falls on Chris Getz (2B) and the very popular Munenori Kawasaki (SS) in the middle infield.

Dan Johnson (1B) is looking to rebound from what he admits was a disappointing 2013. He and Andy LaRoche (3B) should give the Bisons some pop in the batting order.

Catcher

Veteran Mike Nickeas and Jack Murphy will start the season in Buffalo after getting a taste of Triple-A with a late call up last year. Murphy had 11 doubles in 56 games with New Hampshire last season.

“I love our young starting pitchers,” said Nickeas. “I think our starting staff is going to be very good. Our bullpen has some depth as well.”

Outfield

Kevin Pillar, Brad Glenn and Anthony Gose will get the start on most nights. Glenn went deep in his first at-bat for the Herd last season. Pillar, the Jays 20th best prospect also turned heads with his unexpected surge of power as he won the “Webster Award” as the top minor league player in the Jays system. Pillar earned a call up to Toronto after hitting .299 in 52 games with Buffalo. But he struggled at the plate with the Jays, as he pressed too much in an effort to become a power hitter. Pillar said he is focused on getting back to being a contact hitter who can spray the ball to all parts of the field.

Matt Tuiasosopo, who hit 12 home runs for the Bisons in 2012, has returned to Coca-Cola Field. Ricardo Nanita is also back.

Manager

Gary Allenson doesn’t have the big league name like Wally Backman. And he isn’t an old friend like Marty Brown. But Allenson is an old school come to work every day type of skipper that a town like Buffalo can appreciate.

“He’s the man,” Marcus Strohman said with a smile, as he talked about Allenson’s drill Sargent like appearance.

“He expects the best from us on a daily basis and expects us to go out and compete at the highest level.”

Overview

The Bisons have enough to contend for the North Division title, but Rochester will also be in the hunt. Norfolk should pose a tough challenge to defending Governors’ Cup champion Durham in the South.

Division winners: North: Pawtucket, South: Durham, West: Indianapolis. Wild Card: Buffalo.