By: Brian Frank
The Buffalo Bisons are preparing to play a season unlike any other in the team's storied history. After the 2020 minor-league season was cancelled due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, the Bisons now enter a season where they won’t be playing in Buffalo – at least to start. Due to ongoing renovations at Sahlen Field in preparation for the possible return of the Toronto Blue Jays this summer, the Bisons are beginning the season by playing home games at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, New Jersey – about a 6 1/2 hour drive from Buffalo.
“It’s a tough situation,” Bisons manager Casey Candaele said on the eve of Opening Day in Trenton, “but at least we’re going to be playing baseball – which it’s been a while. So the players I know are excited.”
New manager Casey Candaele. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Cllub.
In an odd twist this season, the team will wear Trenton Thunder uniforms when playing home games in New Jersey, but will don Buffalo Bisons uniforms on the road. They’ll also be known as the Buffalo Bisons in the official standings and stats.
“I don’t know if this has ever happened before where a team played a season and they wore uniforms of two different cities,” Candaele said while outfitted in a Bisons hat and a Thunder shirt. “So I think we’re making history.”
“That’s one of the things I told Casey before I came in here – I’m like, ‘Am I wearing a Bisons hat? I don’t think I have a Bisons hat,’ ” prospect Alek Manoah laughed while doing a press conference wearing a Thunder hat. “So it’s definitely something we’re going to have to figure out.”
The Thunder were the Yankees Double-A affiliate before minor-league restructuring last year. So Bisons players will have to become accustomed to wearing the Thunder pinstripes.
“I can’t tell you how weird it is that I’m wearing pinstripe pants right now,” top Blue Jays prospect Nate Pearson said. “We’re at home in Trenton. We have to be the Trenton Thunder at home, but when we’re on the road we switch and we’re the Buffalo Bisons. So that’s a little bit weird. I never would have thought I’d be in pinstripes. If you would have asked me last year, I would have said there’s no way I would have been in pinstripes. None of the affiliates of the Blue Jays wear that.. so it’s a little weird.”
Manoah and Pearson are the two biggest prospects on this season's Bisons roster, but they are not alone. The preliminary roster, released on the eve of the season opener, features seven of the top thirty Blue Jays prospects. Pearson (#1) and Manoah (#6) are joined by fellow starting pitchers Joey Murray (#17), T.J. Zeuch (#26), and Nick Allgeyer (#30), outfielder Josh Palacios (#27) and infielder Kevin Smith (#28).
Nate Pearson gets the Opening Day start. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
The starting rotation looks to be solid. Pearson, Manoah, Zeuch, and Allegeyer, are joined by Jacob Waguespack. Murray will also join the fold after he builds up his pitch count in Florida.
Pearson draws the Opening Day assignment. The much-heralded 24-year-old fireballer was expected to be in the Blue Jays rotation this season, but he suffered a groin injury during Spring Training. He’s currently building up his stamina in hopes of rejoining the Blue Jays soon.
“Everything’s going well,” Pearson said. “I’m feeling healthy. The groins feeling good. The body’s feeling good. I’m built up to 65 pitches, so I think we’re going to push that a little bit tomorrow. Try to throw some clean innings. But yeah, I’m feeling good.”
Manoah will make his Triple-A debut this season after pitching at low-A Vancouver in 2019. His large jump through the Blue Jays system is due in part to a dominant Spring Training - he fired seven scoreless innings, fanned 15 batters and only allowed one hit and no walks during the spring with Toronto.
”Extremely blessed,” Manoah said of getting the opportunity to start the season in Triple-A. “The team believes I’m ready to be here and I surely believe I’m ready to be here. This is the spot that they put me, so I’m going to give it all I got and just try to go make the best of it.”
Alek Manoah will make the jump to Triple-A. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
The infield features Smith, Dilson Herrera, Cullen Large, Christian Colon, Tyler White and – at least to start the season – Rowdy Tellez. Tellez struggled this season with the Blue Jays. He wasn't likely to get many at-bats with the Blue Jays, because George Springer, who is recovering from injury, will be Toronto's designated hitter for the foreseeable future. So, Tellez was sent to Triple-A to regain his stroke.
“He’s a great hitter,” Candaele said of Tellez. “It’s just getting him back on track. Back to what he was doing last year. And it happens with a lot of players. It’s just basically getting confidence back and getting him back where he needs to be.”
Juan Graterol and Reese McGuire will be behind the plate. This will be McGuire’s third season with the Herd.
Joining Wall in the outfield are newcomers Josh Palacios, who already had a 4 RBI game this season for the Blue Jays, Breyvic Valera, and Logan Warmoth. Jonathan Davis, who’s spent most of the season with the Blue Jays, could also be in the outfield mix, although he's currently traveling with the Blue Jays.
Wall had a taste of Triple-A at the end of the 2019 season, when he played 14 games for Buffalo. “The main thing I’m focused on is to just be as consistent as I can,” Wall said. “I want to come to the ballpark every day – I’ve got my routine, I know the things I need to work on and just continue to do that and improve and to just be as consistent as possible and ready for whatever they need.”
Outfielder Forrest Wall played 14 games for the 2019 Bisons. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
The bullpen features Bryan Baker, Kirby Snead, A.J. Cole, Jeremy Beasley, Hobie Harris, Dany Jimenez, and Jackson Rees. Candaele said he will not be using any one pitcher to close games. “It will probably be more matchup based,” he said. “You know with the game today, the higher leverage parts of the game could be earlier. So it’s just basically using it that way and trying to get our guys out there and see how they respond in certain situations. I think they’ll all have an opportunity to do different things in the bullpen, which is basically what happens in the game now at the major-league level.”
Even with all the uncertainty heading into the new season regarding where the team will be playing and what uniform they’ll be wearing, Candaelle is still looking forward to Opening Day – as he always does.
“This one especially,” he said, “because it’s been such a long period of time since some of these guys have been in competition where it meant something against another team. So, I can sense the anticipation. They’re wanting to get it started. I could basically tell when we were in Florida with about a week and a half, two weeks to go they were done with that and they knew the season was going to start and so they wanted to get it going… The players are excited, I’m excited, the staff’s excited. It’s going to be fun.”