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Wings and a prayer

Do Rochester's sluggers have a shot at beating Buffalo this year?


Rochester Red Wings General Manager Dan Mason calls the rival Buffalo Bisons "the Yankees of the International League."

Whether that's a compliment or a slam is open to interpretation, depending on your feelings about the Bronx Bombers and their absurdly humongous payroll. But as a statement of fact, Mason's evaluation of the Bisons is pretty much dead-on. The Bisons have been able to dominate the International League's North Division in recent years because their parent team, the Cleveland Indians, has poured money into its Triple-A affiliate in the form of salaries for a slew of high-priced free agents.

"They always have a high payroll," Mason says of the Bisons. "Cleveland always spends a lot of money on that team. It's a very expensive insurance policy."

Mason contrasts Buffalo's approach to the game with that of the Red Wings, who finished the 2005 season seven games behind Buffalo in the division (the Wings tied for second withPawtucket), by asserting that Rochester's parent club, the Minnesota Twins, opts for a more developmental, home-grown approach to their farm system.

"The Twins have a very different philosophy" than the Indians, he says. "Because it's a small market, they believe their strength is in developing players from within the organization."

What that means, he says, is that the Wings are perennial runners-up to the Bisons, simply because Rochester can't put the same top-quality lineup on the field game in and game out. "Free agency," he says, "makes it tougher for us to win."

And by extension, tougher to make the playoffs, which the Wings haven't done for nine years.

So will the 2006 season be any different? The Bisons, oddly enough, think so. Brad Bisbing, Buffalo's PR coordinator, says that his team will take on a new look this year, one that might seem familiar to Wings fans.

"This year, I think you'll notice that the Bisons and the Red Wings will be mirror images of each other," he says. "We have an extremely young team this year."

The Indians only signed "a handful, maybe three or four" free agents for Buffalo this year because, Bisbing says, that's all they needed. "The Indians have done so well drafting and developing young players that there wasn't a need to go out and sign many free agents," he says.

That, Mason notes, is what the Twins have done with Rochester in recent years, with moderate success. "We're usually younger than most teams in the league," he says, "but we've proven in the last two or three years that we can be competitive with the rich talent that lies in the system" and the signing of a few key free agents.

So, fine. Rochester and Buffalo will look strangely alike this year. Does that mean the Red Wings might actually have a shot at overtaking their Thruway rivals in 2006 and make the playoffs?

Probably not. True, Rochester enters the season with a handful of promising prospects in the roster, including catcher Chris Heintz, first baseman Garrett Jones, second baseman Luis Maza, outfielder Jason Tyner, fireballing starter BoofBonser and closer Pat Neshek.

But the Wings also enter the season with several glaring weaknesses --- a lack of power at the plate, a weak back half of the rotation, a black hole at shortstop, suspect middle relief --- that'll be hard to overcome.

The Wings were holding out hope that the Twins wouldn't keep two studs --- 2004 IL batting champ and Rookie of the Year Jason Kubel, and 2005 strikeout king and IL Rookie of the Year Francisco Liriano --- on their roster and send them down to Rochester to start the season.

However, when the parent club on Sunday announced its opening day roster, both Liriano and Kubel were on it. And with a slew of injuries plaguing the Twins, there's a good chance Rochester's roster will be occasionally plundered at the start of the season. That would be bad news for Rochester --- and, presumably, good news for Buffalo, Pawtucket,and the rest of the division.

But Wings fans should take heart: even if the team itself may leave something to be desired, the whole Frontier Field experience will receive an upgrade that includes the installation of a brand new, state-of-the-art video scoreboard and, after the end of this season, a new playing field and other needed maintenance moves.

Of course, that fan experience would be considerably more fun if the team wins. That should happen fairly often this season in Rochester, but not enough to end the Wings' playoff drought --- and probably not enough to surpass Buffalo, no matter what size payroll the Bisons have.

The Rochester Red Wings start their 2006 season Thursday, April 6, in Syracuse and then take on the SkyChiefs at the first home game Saturday, April 8, 1:35 p.m. at Frontier Field, 1 Morrie Silver Way, 423-9464. $6-$10.