As it is seemingly every year, the Sacramento River Cats are expected to challenge for a spot in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. The River Cats have made the playoffs all but two years since launching as a franchise in 2000. During that span, Sacramento has taken home Pacific Coast League crown four times.
In 2011, new manager Darren Bush will be looking to make that number five. Bush is familiar with league titles, having won championships with the 2008 Stockton Ports and the 2009 Midland Rockhounds. Last season, Bush took the Rockhounds to the Texas League finals. The rest of his staff is familiar with winning, as well. Hitting coach Todd Steverson won the PCL title as Sacramento's manager in 2008 and pitching coach Scott Emerson was on Bush's staff in Stockton and Midland for the 2008 and 2009 titles.
The 2011 River Cats' roster is a mix of high-profile prospects and seasoned veterans. The position players represent most of the players in the "prospect" category, and the pitching staff is stocked with former major leaguers at various stages of their careers.
The headline player is outfielder/first-baseman Chris Carter, who returns to Sacramento after spending nearly all of last season with the River Cats. Carter hit .258 with an 894 OPS and 31 homers in 125 games for the River Cats last season. He also hit three homers in 24 games with the A's in a September call-up. Carter has hit at least 25 homers in each of the past four minor league seasons and is a good bet to reach that total again if he spends the year in the minors. Chances are, however, he will be with Oakland at some point this summer.
A's 2008 first-round pick Jemile Weeks is making his Triple-A debut this season. The second baseman has been hampered by injuries since signing with the A's, but he is coming off of a standout spring training and could be pushing for a spot on the A's roster late in the season if he plays well and stays healthy. Weeks is a dynamic talent with plus speed and the ability to get on-base from both sides of the plate. He will set the table for the middle of the River Cats' order.
Fellow second base prospect Adrian Cardenas returns to Sacramento looking for better results than his previous stints with the club. Last season, Cardenas began the year with the River Cats, but after a rough first six weeks, he was sent down to Double-A, where he hit .345 in 51 games before returning to Sacramento. Cardenas finished the season strong at the plate and will look to build on that finish. He will also be looking to improve defensively at several positions around the infield.
The second base position is very crowded in Sacramento. In addition to Weeks and Cardenas, top second base prospect Eric Sogard is on the roster. All three guys will move around the infield a bit to spread out the playing time. Sogard got a head start on playing a utility infield role this spring when he was competing for that role on the A's Opening Day roster. Sogard is a patient hitter who will likely hit behind Weeks, giving the River Cats' three-four hitters plenty of runners in front of them.
Josh Horton and Steven Tolleson are the only natural shortstops on the River Cats' roster, although both are capable of playing second and third, as well. Horton will have to fight for playing time, at least early in the year, as he has Weeks, Cardenas and Sogard in front of him. Horton is a slick fielder and another patient hitter. He is making his Triple-A debut after two years at Double-A. Tolleson was another spring candidate for the A's back-up infield spot, a role he played for 24 games with Oakland last season. Tolleson was one of the River Cats' best hitters in 2010, batting .332 with a 915 OPS in a break-out campaign.
Adam Heether and Wes Timmons are also natural infielders on the roster. Both will see time at first base, third base and in the corner outfield spots. Heether was on the A's 40-man roster last season after being claimed mid-year off of waivers from the Milwaukee Brewers. He hit only .228 with a 677 OPS with the River Cats, but had a 783 OPS with Triple-A Nashville earlier in the year. Timmons is in his first year with Oakland after spending nine years in the Atlanta Braves' chain, never making it higher than Triple-A. Timmons had an excellent spring in the A's big league camp and hit .293 with a .400 OBP for Triple-A Gwinnett last season.
While Michael Taylor heals from a sprained wrist at the A's extended spring training camp, Carter, Matt Carson and Jai Miller will get the majority of the time in the Sacramento outfield. Carson was an important member of the last two River Cats' teams, posting an OPS of 841 in 2009 and 930 in 2010. Carson also appeared in 36 games with the A's as a back-up outfielder. He hit .177 with four homers. Carson is an excellent defensive outfielder and can play all three outfield spots.
Miller can also play all three outfield spots. He was briefly with Sacramento last season when the A's claimed him off of waivers from the Florida Marlins. They would lose Miller to a waiver claim by the Kansas City Royals early in the season. Miller hit .252 with 18 homers in 94 Triple-A games last season and .236 with a homer in his first major league stint with Kansas City. Miller is an excellent athlete with good power, but he has a tendency to rack-up the strike-outs.
Behind the plate, Sacramento will have a familiar look, as their 2010 catching tandem of Josh Donaldson and Anthony Recker have returned to the team. Donaldson hit a career-high 18 homeruns and posted an 812 OPS for the River Cats last season, but he also saw his batting average dip to a career-low .238 mark. Donaldson can play both corner infield positions, in addition to catch. Recker is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, as he hit .288 with an 837 OPS in 80 games with the River Cats last season. He will serve as Donaldson's back-up and may see some time at first base, as well.
The pitching staff was set to be led by right-hander Tyson Ross until an injury in the A's bullpen created an opening for Ross in Oakland. Ross may return to the River Cats' starting rotation when Michael Wuertz returns from the disabled list, although Ross could stick in Oakland if he pitches well.
Josh Outman got the Opening Day start in lieu of Ross. The left-hander was one of the top pitchers in the A's rotation in 2009 before he blew out his elbow. He is still working his way back to the same level of consistency he had before the Tommy John surgery, but he is healthy and still has a live arm. Outman should get a significant number of starts with the River Cats before he is considered for a role with the A's.
Travis Banwart, Guillermo Moscoso and Yadel Marti are the other three River Cats' starters on the current roster. It isn't clear yet who will replace Ross in the rotation. Banwart returns to Sacramento after a strong second half of the 2010 season as a River Cat. Banwart struck-out 71 in 73 innings with Sacramento and overall had a 3.80 ERA and 130 strike-outs in 156.1 innings between Midland and Sacramento.
Moscoso and Marti are new to the A's organization. Moscosco is a former Texas Rangers' farmhand who was acquired in a trade by Oakland this off-season. A member of the 40-man roster, Moscoso had a 5.18 ERA for Triple-A Oklahoma City last season, but pitched well in Venezuela over the winter. Marti is a Cuban refugee and former star of that country's national team. The 31-year-old is making his US baseball debut this season. He had a strong big league camp with the A's.
The River Cats' bullpen is long on experience. Right-handers Vinnie Chulk, Fernando Cabrera, Joey Devine and Willie Eyre all have significant major league experience, while Joe Bateman and Gabe DeHoyos are minor league veterans. Devine is the only member of the A's 40-man roster of this group and he is the one most likely to make an impact with Oakland this season. The right-hander missed the last two seasons after blowing out his elbow during the spring of 2009, but he had an 0.59 ERA in 45.2 innings for the A's in 2008. Devine is still working on regaining the feel for his command, but once he finds it, he should return to the big leagues.
Trystan Magnuson and Daniel Farquhar are the newcomers in the bullpen. Both were acquired from the Toronto organization over the off-season for Rajai Davis. Magnuson was added to the roster this past off-season. The 6'7'' right-hander walked only 10 in 73.1 innings last season in Double-A. Farquhar is one of the more unusual pitchers in the minor leagues because he uses multiple arm angles when he pitches, sometimes going over the top, sometimes going three-quarters and other times going submarine. He struck-out 79 in 76.2 innings last season and has terrific movement on his pitches, but can sometimes lose his feel for the strike-zone. Both pitchers are making their Triple-A debuts.
In an interesting twist, the River Cats currently have no left-handers in their bullpen, although that will likely change when Brad Kilby completes his rehab from shoulder surgery.