By Matt Parrino
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — It’s been quite some time since there was this much excitement around the Buffalo Bisons organization.
After a disappointing four years under the New York Mets banner, the Bisons are now the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, and manager Marty Brown is back in the dugout for Buffalo. That’s right, the same Marty Brown who led the Herd to its sixth Governors Cup back in 2004.
The Bisons are set for opening day at Coca-Cola Field today at 2 p.m. against in-state rival Rochester, and Brown is excited to be back in Buffalo.
“I love Buffalo,” he said on Tuesday afternoon outside the Bisons’ clubhouse on Media Day at Coca Cola Field. “It’s a special place for me and all the people around here are like family. I was sitting around my office today and similar things were going on with (press box announcer Kevin) Lester and (VP and General Manger) Mike Buczkowski, and I’m like, ‘Did I really leave?’ I didn’t even think I left, but its good to be back.”
The Bisons went 83-61 in their championship season, and Brown, who coached from 2003-2005, was named International League Manager of the Year and Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year. Buffalo hasn’t played a playoff game since he left.
Brown is a no-nonsense type of manager who expects his -players to perform and compete to win games. He said the Toronto-Buffalo marriage is a win-win situation for both parties.
“I think that affiliation really helps (the Blue Jays) to be quite honest, because of the fact logistically we are so close to Toronto,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time in Las Vegas (Toronto’s former AAA affiliate). But, you look at Buffalo and the facility itself is state of the art from the time I first played in it until now — it’s still one of the best.
“I think that’s a huge uplift we’ve seen. This is as big league as it gets for any AAA team to walk through these doors.”
The Bisons will field an experienced team to start the season, as 23 players have played at the Major League level for a combined 3,299 games.
Brown likes the mix of talent on the team. He said fans will enjoy watching young prospects like Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra progress throughout the season, and veterans guys like Ramon Ortiz and Ryan Langerhans will provide production and leadership in the clubhouse.
Starting at second base for the Herd this season is Buffalo native and St. Francis graduate Jim Negrych, who spent last season with AAA Syracuse. He played in 91 games, posting a .264 batting average with eight home runs and 39 RBI.
Negrych said many friends and family are planning to catch a few more Bisons games this season now that the 28-year-old lefty hitter is back home in Western New York.
”It’s definitely exciting (to be here),” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in Buffalo a few times, but to actually play for the Bisons is something a lot of guys haven’t been able to say they could do (that grew up here). It’s an opportunity to come out and hopefully put people back in the stands here, go out and be successful and win a lot of baseball games.”
Negrych will man the middle infield with double play partner Ryan Goins, who is in his fifth season — all with Toronto. He played 136 games at AA New Hampshire of the Eastern League last year, where he hit .289 with seven home runs, 61 RBI, 15 stolen bases and 47 walks. His 158 total hits was tops in the league. Luis Jimenez, a AAA all-star with Tacoma last season, will play first base and Andy LaRoche, a member of the 2012 Pawtucket Governors Cup team, will play third base.
In the outfield, Gose is as good as they come. The 22-year old prospect could easily be opening the season in Toronto if not for the Blue Jays’ spending spree in the offseason. The acquisition of Melky Cabrera will keep Gose in the minors for a while longer, but Toronto’s loss is Buffalo’s gain.
Gose stole 70 bases in 2011 at New Hampshire and combined for 49 between Las Vegas and Toronto last season. He hit .286 for the 51s with 31 extra base hits (10 triples) and 43 RBI. Sierra was a member of the Dominican Republic team that won the World Baseball Classic in March. He hit .271 with 23 home runs and 78 RBI between Las Vegas and Toronto last season.
Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas will be the backstops for the Herd, both Buffalo veterans from the Mets’ years. Thole caught Johan Santana’s no-hitter last season and is known for his ability to manage a pitching staff.
Journeyman Justin Germano will get the ball today to open the season for the Bisons. He went 9-4 last year in Pawtucket and was the Red Sox’ opening day starter, ironically, against the Bisons in 2012.
Germano didn’t have a great spring training, but Brown said he is a veteran guy that mixes four pitches and knows how to throw strikes.
”All of our pitchers are going to be strike throwers, which puts pressure on our defense, which I like, because we are going to have a very solid defense,” Brown said. “But Justin is the type of guy that’s been through it before. I know he’s motivated to come to the park every day and his motivation is to get back to the big leagues.”
Claudio Vargas, David Bush, Todd Redmond and Ortiz complete the Bisons’ rotation. In the bullpen, Brad Lincoln, Alex Burnett and Alex Hinshaw highlight a group with plenty of big league experience.
”I’m very exciting (to be a part of this staff),” Germano said. “We have guys who have been around and have experience out there, and we may not have guys who will overpower people, but we will throw strikes.”
The expectations in the world of AAA baseball aren’t always about winning first, but Brown said the Bisons will be very competitive.
”I think for the city of Buffalo, as well as Toronto — when we walk in the door every day we have a chance to compete and win, and we want to make sure we put our players in a position to succeed,” Brown said. “I think it’s my job on any given day to make sure that day in and day out, no matter what happened the day before, we can control right now and today, and I think our players are a good group (that) really sees that.”Contact sports editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find him on Twitter @MattParrino.