Back in February, I had a chance to speak with Buffalo Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski. He doesn't tweet too much, but you can follow him @BuffaloBisonsGM. Because it was a lengthy chat, I separated it into three parts that will appear throughout this week. In part 1, we talked a little about the "Bisons Experience", here we chatted about minor league affiliations.
ML: Is there a difference in the way you deal with prospects coming up to AAA and minor league veterans who find themselves there?
MB: Most AAA GMs will tell you that six-year (minor league) free agents are so key to wins and losses and success of a AAA team. If you sign good minor league free agents, guys who understand their role, they almost become like adding another coach on the field. They hopefully become a guy that younger guys look up to and watch see how they prepare for games. This all helps the young players develop. The Blue Jays have done a great job in the number of minor league free agents they signed. You have to have those players because the young players, as you know, that jump from AA to AAA there is no guarantee. You can be one of the better players at AA and it does not mean it will automatically transfer to having instant success in AAA. As a matter of fact, I would argue that at some point, most guys from AA do go through tough times in AAA—they are facing guys who have been to the big leagues, the pitching is a little different, they’re craftier, they are not just out there to work on a pitch, they’re out there to get you out. They’re out there to compete to make a name for themselves. Having those experienced guys who can help the young guys through the tough times is really key, and plays a huge role in the final development of a talented young players.
ML: One of the first six-year free agents signed was Jim Negrych. How much influence did the Bisons have on his signing?
MB: Well, obviously Jim is from Buffalo and we know him. He’s played against us in our league and have had success in AAA with a couple of organizations. If our influence was anything, we know the kid personally, he’s a great kid, we know his family. If all else being equal if you’re looking for a second baseman who is a good player and a good person—he would be a good candidate. If the Blue Jays’ top prospect was a second baseman it wouldn’t have worked out for Jim, but it just so happened that they were looking to fill a need for us in AAA.
ML: On player development contracts, it seems like the Major League Rules have very specific things that major and minor league teams can and cannot discuss. When you and the Blue Jays were discussing affiliation, what topics came up?
MB: The player development contract is very standard, it’s the same for every team. There is no side agreements or separate contracts. The only option available is whether that agreement is signed for two-year period of time or a four-year period of time, and that is really all you talk about. Once that agreement is signed, then you’re free to talk about how you can help each other, how we should be cross-promoting each other. And that’s really where our conversations have been with Paul Beeston and Steve Brooks and a number of people on the Blue Jays staff. We think we have a good opportunity, being so close, to help create more Blue Jays fans in western New York and for the Blue Jays fans to help us have more baseball fans from Toronto and southern Ontario to come and see their AAA team play. There are many affiliations in the country that have a close proximity that work really closely together, whether it’d be the Hot Stove event, or youth baseball initiatives, cross marketing, cross promoting, etc. Those are the things we have spent a lot of time talking about. How we can help each other, how we can establish this corridor of Blue Jays fans that extends from western New York to Toronto. We can have a key role in getting more western New Yorkers to the Rogers Centre and I think for sure the Jays will help us expose people who may never have seen AAA baseball to come on down. You couple that with how many Canadians are already coming over the bridges for shopping and for theatre and for recreation—we want to be on that list of things people want to do as well. Bring the family down and spend an evening here. Come to a game or two and do your shopping and go to the theatre, and see the future Blue Jays right here in Buffalo.
ML: What can a major league team do to make a minor league affiliate happy? I know that towards the end you had some problems with the Mets, and the Blue Jays have also had problems with their long-term affiliate in Syracuse.
MB: I think it is a lot of things we talked about: a total partnership. It’s not just about six-year free agents. It’s a huge part of it. I think Buffalo is a little different from the other minor league markets in that we have an NFL and NHL team here. Buffalo sports fans who go to those games go to see those teams win, and I think some of that trickles to the Bisons. People in Buffalo and western New York have a strong, strong emotional tie to, and identification with, their professional sports franchises. Because we are in a major league market with those other two sports, it’s just a little bit different—they come here and they wanna see a win. And when the team doesn’t win or when the fans perceive that the team is not playing up to their capabilities, or maybe they feel like they’re not playing hard enough, our fans will let them know! You talk to some people who’ve played here and they’ll tell you that sometimes our fans will boo! Ultimately what you want in a AAA setting is a competitive team. There’s never a guarantee in AAA that anybody can look and say, "wow look at that Buffalo roster on Opening Day, they’ll win it all" because we know our roster will change—every other team in the league will change. Sometime teams start out being bad then end up being the best, sometimes you start off with the best team and end up not being so good. Ultimately what we want to share with the Jays is this complete partnership.
People in western New York are excited that we have a chance to be affiliated with one of the premier teams in Major League Baseball. I have heard more talk about the Blue Jays on Buffalo radio and Buffalo media this offseason that I can ever remember. I don’t remember hearing the Jays’ GM on the radio station in October, November, and December talking about Blue Jays baseball, I don’t remember reading so much about the Blue Jays in Buffalo in the offseason. The buzz has trickled down to here and I think it’s going to be exciting for our fans to be part of that—everyone loves a winner, and here in Buffalo it’s no different. Hopefully this connection will create more Blue Jays fans. There are already people who head up there but we want more. We don’t just want the people who go to see the Yankees games at Rogers Centre, we want them to go see a guy who has played here who they feel a connection with.
ML: Personally, how did you feel when the Jays traded probable Bisons stars like Adeiny Hechavarria, Travis d’Arnaud? Did you feel that it was a potential marketing tool lost?
MB: Absolutely. I kiddingly said to Alex one time, I think I sent him a text, that I hope things quiet down for a while now! You’re right, when you’re looking forward to seeing those two play here, but I think it goes back to what I said: those moves enabled the Jays now to become a favourite to win the East and to make it to the postseason and if that creates roster stability for the Blue Jays then ultimately that would be better for us. If they don’t make those moves, maybe Anthony Gose starts with Toronto. If they don’t make those moves, there’s no guarantee that Travis d’Arnaud wouldn’t be here a month and then gone if he had played well and the Blue Jays needed his help. From a pure baseball standpoint I would love to see those guys play, but the moves have created such a great situation for the Jays that will actually help stabilize their minor league system. It sounds strange, when you lose a couple of prospects and you say your system is stabilized, but it’s really the truth. I also think that they are still one of the deepest systems in baseball. It’s not like they traded every prospect they had, they still have some great young prospects in there all the way down to short-season A ball that people have high regard for. The cupboard is still stacked with great players that are eventually going to make their way here.
ML: What do you think about Major League rehab stints, especially now that the AAA team is so close?
MB: I think that what everybody hopes is that there is not a single rehab assignment, because that means someone has gotten hurt. But in reality, it does happen. Our fans love the opportunity to see a Blue Jays player play a few games here to see a major league player performing in their city, on our field. It can be a big draw for teams.
Much thanks go to Mike for speaking with me. Look forward to the final part of this interview later this week and keep coming back to Bluebird Banter!