As of this Sunday morning, the Blue Jays no longer have an affiliation with a Triple-A ball club. Their contract with the Las Vegas 51s officially expired, and while a reunion is still possible, it appears as though the organizations will part ways after four years together. The Blue Jays are one of only two teams without a Triple-A club locked up for the 2013 season, with the New York Mets being the other. Their former affiliate, Buffalo, is the preferred destination for Toronto.
The Buffalo Bisons have been below .500 for the past two seasons, and attendance has dropped as the Mets failed to stock the roster with a strong prospect influence. It’s primarily for that reason that the Bisons ownership is rumored to be interested in the Blue Jays, who had a sharp contrast in Triple-A talent last season. In going 79-64, the 51s had contributions from prospects Travis d’Arnaud, Anthony Gose, Adeiny Hechavarria, Moises Sierra, and David Cooper, while also fielding major league players like Travis Snider, Eric Thames, Adam Lind, and Brett Cecil for extended periods of time. Things will only get better moving forward, as not only will some of those prospects return to Triple-A in 2013, but there is some elite talent in the middle and lower levels of the system that should arrive in the next two years.
The reason why Buffalo should be attracted to Toronto is blatantly obvious; they’ll provide talent that will put fans in the seats and revenue in the owner’s pockets. The opposite is just as true; there are plenty of reasons why Buffalo should be considered a desirable affiliate location for Toronto.
First and foremost is logistics. A direct flight from Las Vegas to Toronto is around five hours, as the two cities are approximately 3600 kilometers apart. Buffalo, on the other hand, is so close a plane isn’t even necessary; the distance can be driven in less than two hours. As players like Mike McCoy and Yan Gomes would surely attest, that’s a significant benefit to team and players alike. It would be a favorable move for prospect folk as well, as you can make a scouting trip out of a weekend with Buffalo; with Las Vegas, not so much.
The second is analysis. While the Blue Jays have claimed they have ways of dealing with the “Vegas effect” when evaluating players – and I’m sure they have something – I don’t think anyone would argue having a more neutral environment with which to work would be preferable. The average hitter in the Pacific Coast League hit .278/.345/.430, while the average pitcher had a 4.69 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. On the other hand, in the International League, the averages were .257/.328/.389, 3.92 ERA, and 1.36 WHIP. The latter numbers are much more in line with both Double-A and Major League Baseball, which makes statistical projection from level-to-level more viable and reliable.
The third reason is about building a brand. The Blue Jays have done an excellent job of increasing their footprint in Canada over the past couple of years, particularly with the addition of a minor league club in Vancouver and their Winter Tour. Whether they’ll admit it or not, they attempted to take it a step further by moving a Double-A team to Ottawa, but plans fell through and they chose to extend their contract in New Hampshire instead. A Triple-A club in Buffalo would be huge for winning over fans in the United States, as Buffalo is significantly closer to Toronto than it is to New York City. For a team that often appears to care as much about the bottom line as it does on-field performance – though the merits of that could and have been debated – a Triple-A location that could pull fans from south of the border through the Rogers Centre turnstiles would have to be considered a bonus.
Agreements with minor league affiliates run for either two or four years, and while two years is usually considered normal – particularly at the beginning of a new partnership – Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca wrote in an article early this afternoon that both sides would be interested in a four year pact. That would be ideal, as in addition to the reasons I listed above, it would provide some much needed stability for a Blue Jays team that had struggled to find a Triple-A team that they wanted and that wanted them. The last few years in Syracuse were like an ugly divorce; Las Vegas gave us what we needed as a nice rebound, but we have an opportunity for something very real and very special down in Buffalo. I’m ready for a long term commitment if they are.