Mitchell on Bichette: He's put in the work defensively and he looks ready
Bo Bichette needed just one word to get his point across.
“Very,” the Buffalo Bisons shortstop answers quickly.
The question: How ready do you feel for the big leagues right now?
Despite an early season hand injury that robbed him of seven weeks’ worth of at-bats, most would agree that the 21-year-old is closing in on as-ready-as-he’ll-ever-be territory.
The numbers are evidence.
Prior to the fracturing his left hand April 22 when he was struck by a fastball, Bichette was slashing .250/.322/.404 with five extra-base hits in a tiny sample size of just 60 plate appearances as a 21-year-old, well below the average age of the Triple-A International League circuit.
Considering the start, you’d think it would have taken Bichette some time to get comfortable when he returned.
Not at all.
In 106 plate appearances since returning to the Bisons lineup on June 13, Bichette has hit a scorching .361/.415/.588 with four homers and nine steals in 10 tries.
Simply put, he’s been one of the best players in the minor leagues for close to a month at the tender age of 21, something the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office has taken notice of.
Asked if Bichette would be a part of the post-all-star-break plan, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins didn’t exactly say yes, but he didn’t shoot it down and talk about the need for further development, either.
“He has absolutely performed at a level that deserves that question, and we’re having it ourselves,” Atkins said. “We’re talking about what is the right timing for him and this team.”
Realistically, July might not be the time without a roster shuffle happening first.
Freddy Galvis, who has a club option for 2020, and 33-year-old Eric Sogard, a free agent this winter after signing a minor-league deal in the spring, have both performed well and could be of interest to contending clubs looking for versatile bench pieces.
They need to continue to play coming out of the break, even though Atkins did say he envisions a way all three could be on the roster at the same time.
Once you mix in Cavan Biggio, who the Jays want to play second base as much as possible, and the struggling Brandon Drury, there aren’t a whole lot of at-bats to go around.
But that will change.
Once the July 31 trade deadline comes and goes, it should be a much different story if Galvis and Sogard can be moved for a low-level prospect or two, paving the way for a Bichette-Biggio double-play combination on most days for the final two months of the season.
Bichette will continue to bide his time in Triple-A until the right dominoes fall.
Watching Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Biggio do their thing in the majors has Bichette salivating at the opportunity to the join them.
Biggio and Bichette talk almost daily.
“Actually, the last time we talked about it was a few days ago and he pretty much said, ‘Hey, if you get frustrated just give me a call, man. It’ll happen,’ that kind of thing,” Bichette said. “I was doing the same thing for him when I was back in Florida [rehabbing] and he was still here in Triple-A. We’re always there for each other and, hopefully, I can join him soon.
“The goal is to not worry too much about what’s going on up there because I need my focus to be here. I need to play well here and continue to develop here and make sure when I get called I’m 100 per cent ready to go contribute. It’s not easy, especially with those two up there and doing what they’re doing, but for me, nothing beneficial comes from that. I’m just trying to be in the moment.”
Back in December at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, Atkins noted a full season in Triple-A might be the ideal scenario, leading many to envision a service time manipulation situation identical to the Guerrero Jr. plan.
But the narrative is changing, and it has a lot to do with the work Bichette put in last winter, hitting the weight room and taking his defensive responsibilities more seriously than ever.
“I worked hard in the gym and made sure my diet was good and, obviously, I took a ton of ground balls,” Bichette said. “For me, growing up I didn’t spend a lot of time on defence. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the weight room, and I would say in the past year and a half, two years, I’ve started to take those things personally and get in the gym and get on the field and take ground balls and get better. I think it’s been a combination of getting in shape and getting the reps at shortstop that have helped me.
“A little bit more consistency with my feet, a little bit more range. But, really, just the confidence going out there knowing I’ve put in the work. I’ve never had that before, so for this year I go out on the field and go to shortstop and I know I’ve done everything to be successful that day and did everything to be ready.”
The Jays front office and coaching staff saw a stronger, more athletic player when he arrived in Dunedin in February, too.
“I saw it defensively, for sure,” said Jays major-league coach John Schneider, who managed Bichette last year in Double-A. “He was like a different dude in spring training than I saw last year in New Hampshire. More focus, his feet are better, arm strength is way better.”
With a step of added range and a bit more arm strength, the final area to clean up defensively is a tendency to scatter throws when everything isn’t in sync.
After committing 25 errors last year in 116 Double-A games, scorers have written down E6 10 times in 37 total games for Bichette this season.
If he hits like most believe he can, the odd wayward throw would be mighty easy to swallow, with a fallback plan as a plus defensive second baseman also an easy fix down the road if it comes to that.
If, for some reason, the business side gets involved over the next couple of months, Bichette is ready to deal with that mentally.
“There’s definitely more factors that go into it than who’s the best 25 [players] and performance,” Bichette said. “For me, if it doesn’t happen this year, I’ll just come to the field every day and make sure that when it happens next year, I’m ready to go.”
At this point, that doesn’t seem to be the preferred route for Atkins and the rest of the Blue Jays’ decision-makers, instead hoping to let their best prospect get comfortable finishing out 2019 in the big leagues so he can hit the ground running alongside the rest of the building blocks next April.
Bichette simply wants to make sure once he’s up, he’s up for good.
“That’s the goal when you get up there: You don’t want to come back and you want to contribute right away.”
Here’s what those who know him well within the Blue Jays organization are saying about Bichette’s readiness:
Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez
“I think he is ready. I think he wants to compete. I think he wants to make the next move. I actually spoke to him not too long ago on one of our flights and he seemed like he was in a good place and having fun in Triple-A, but he’s trying to show us that he can compete at this level as well.”
Friend and former Double-A teammate Cavan Biggio
“Mentally, he’s more ready than ever. He’s been around the game for so long and he’s got such a good competitive mentality where it’s kind of fell into place for him the past two years, I think. He went to Double-A [in 2018] and finally struggled for the first time, but he was able to pick himself back up. I think once he kind of went through that, now he understands what a whole baseball season looks like [with ups and downs]. He can hit and, I think, shortstop he’s going to continue to get better. I love playing with him, so I hope he’s up soon.”
Former Double-A manager John Schneider
“I haven’t seen him since he got hurt, haven’t seen him play in games for a while, but knowing him, he’s just an ultra-competitor and he probably feels like he’s ready. He probably felt like he was ready last year. It’s just a matter of him getting the at-bats under his belt, I think, and continuing to work on the things he’s working on offensively and defensively. It’s going to be another adjustment here whenever it is that he gets up, assuming that he will at some point this year, just like it was from A-ball to Double-A and Double-A to Triple-A. I’m glad I don’t make those decisions, but he’s done well and I know he’s swinging it well right now and playing good D at short. Whenever that time is, he’ll be ready.”