2011 Year In Review and 2012 Outlook
The 2011 Sacramento River Cats were dominant from the start of the season up until the final series of the year, when they fell in the league championship series to the Omaha Storm Chasers. Winning has been a tradition in Sacramento since the River Cats moved to the Capitol City and that figures to continue into 2012, as the team returns a veteran and talent-laden squad. The coaching staff has one change from the 2011 staff, as Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks have switched roles with Steverson taking on the minor league hitting coordinator position and Sparks taking over as the Triple-A hitting coach.
Manager Darren Bush, a former outfielder and catcher of the Padres' and Phillies' organizations, is entering his second season as the River Cats' skipper. In his first season managing at the Triple-A level in 2011, he took the River Cats to the Pacific Coast League Championship series, but got swept by the Omaha Storm Chasers in three games. After managing two seasons of independent ball in 2003 and 2004, Bush started out managing in the A's organization by leading High-A Stockton in 2007, then moving on to Double-A Midland in 2009 (where he captured a Texas League title) before coming to Sacramento at the start of 2011. In his seven seasons, he's amassed a 474-413 record (.534 winning percentage). Last year's Sacramento team held the best record of any professional team under his watch, going 87-56 (.608 winning percentage).
Sparks is the lone newcomer to the team's coaching staff in 2012 after he spent the last eight seasons as the organization's roving minor league hitting instructor. Sparks spent 13 seasons playing in nine organizations, including two years in Oakland's system in 1987-88. Sparks spent two years managing in the Northwest League before managing Oakland's High-A Modesto team from 2000-2002. He went on to manage Double-A Midland in 2003. The 48-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., native was drafted in the 12th round of 1983 draft by the California Angels.
Pitching coach Scott Emerson returns for his 10th season as a pitching coach within the A's organization. Before becoming the River Cats' pitching coach last year, he spent four seasons in the same role at Double-A Midland. From 2003 to 2006, the left-hander was pitching coach at the High-A level with Stockton and Modesto. In his six seasons in the Red Sox' and Orioles' organizations, Emerson compiled a 27-29 record and 4.16 career ERA in 493.1 as a starter and reliever.
The Sacramento Infielders and Catchers
The Sacramento infield will feature a veteran group with only one player who hasn't put in a full season at the Triple-A level before this year. The group is highlighted by Chris Carter, who is returning for his third season with the River Cats. One of the most notable power hitting prospects in the organization in recent years, Carter's progress could be viewed as somewhat disappointing since coming over from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren trade of December 2007. The former two-time organizational player of the year lit up Double-A Midland in 2009 with a 1011 OPS and 24 home runs before being promoted to Sacramento for 13 games to end the season. He earned the Texas League's MVP award that season after winning the California League's Rookie of the Year award in 2008, when he hit a Stockton Ports' record 39 homeruns. In 2010, his 31 home runs at the Triple-A continued to prove his power potential, but his inability to hit quality off-speed pitches was showcased when he made his major league debut with the A's to end the season.
There, Carter had a 585 OPS in 24 games while setting Oakland's record for consecutive hitless at-bats by starting his big league career 0-for-33. The 6'4", 244 pound right-handed hitter had 44 at-bats in a return stint with the A's last year, hitting even worse with a 310 OPS in 46 plate appearances. A fast start in 2012 could help Carter in a big way after being a slow starter at nearly level he's played. His dismal start in the major leagues could mean that he'll have to earn another promotion, even if Oakland's first base situation is far from solidified.
Veteran Wes Timmons figures to play all over the infield for the River Cats once again this season after playing a similar role for them in 2011. Some believe the 10-year veteran of the minor leagues got the short end of the stick by not being more involved in the competition to become the A's third baseman when Scott Sizemore suffered a season-ending knee injury early in spring training. Timmons' career on-base percentage of .391 is nothing to sneeze at, but Timmons' problem is that it's the same as his slugging percentage. His lack of power is likely the reason he wasn't more strongly considered for Oakland's hot corner.
Timmons has played 107 games at second base and considers the position a little easier than third, where he's made 757 appearances. His lack of power plays more to middle infield, where he could get the majority of his playing time with Stephen Parker playing third base for the River Cats. While he's not a power guy by any stretch, Timmons doesn't have superb speed either. Timmons 100 stolen bags in his ten years, but has also been caught 44 times. Should the A's need another infielder, Timmons could get the call, but he'd have to beat out Adam Rosales for the privilege.
Rosales was optioned to Sacramento on Monday, meaning the club elected to have Eric Sogard become the team's backup utility infielder. Rosales will likely play shortstop for the River Cats, but could see time all over the infield depending on what's happening with the corner positions battles in Oakland. Rosales made his major league debut with Cincinnati in 2008 and was traded to Oakland before the 2010 season in a deal that saw the A's trade a player who never suited up for them (Willy Tavaras) and acquire another who also never played an inning – regular season or spring training – with the club (Aaron Miles). Since then, Rosales has struggled to stay healthy, bouncing between the River Cats and A's during his two-year tenure with Oakland. Rosales has a career-line of .292/.347/.465 (812 OPS) at Triple-A, with just a 630 career OPS in the majors.
Parker is the newest member of the River Cats' infield, having only made his Triple-A debut during the final weeks of the 2011 season. Kevin Kouzmanoff and Josh Donaldson handled the majority of time at third base in 2011 for the River Cats. With the Rockhounds, Parker had decent year with a 786 OPS with 10 homers and 74 driven in. His .286 average and .373 on-base numbers in Midland were satisfactory, but hitting just 10 home runs in Double-A after having 21 the previous year for High-A Stockton was somewhat concerning. Strong power numbers paired with an improved glove with the River Cats could vault Parker into the conversation at the potential third base vacuum, should the Donaldson and Sogard combo fail to produce in Oakland.
In all likelihood, it will take Parker another season of productivity before becoming major league-ready. Parker will likely be behind Rosales and Timmons as short-term options should anything happen to Donaldson and Sogard. But Parker's standing could improve with the organization in 2013 with a good 2012 at Triple-A.
Brandon Hicks isn't new to Triple-A but he is new to the A's organization, having been claimed off waivers on March 13. The former 2007 third-round selection by Braves has played 432 of his 462 career games at shortstop, giving the A's another versatile infielder with some experience in the major leagues. Hicks has a well above-average glove at shortstop and also has experience at third base. The Texas native appeared in a handful of games with the Braves in 2010 and 2011.
Hicks didn't show much offensively in limited opportunities with Atlanta, collecting one hit in 28 at-bats spread over 33 games where he was commonly used as a defensive replacement. His is definitely more known for his defense, having never hit above .240 in either the Double-A or Triple-A level in Atlanta's organization. He does have some pop in his bat, having reached double-digits in homeruns three of the past four seasons.
The River Cats' catching corps is headed by prospect Derek Norris, who enters the season as the A's highest-rated catching prospect. Norris was the lone position player acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade that brought over three arms from the Nationals. The former fourth-round selection is a low-average, high-on-base dynamo with a career line of .249/.403/.458 in his five minor league seasons. His best year came in 2009 with Class-A Hagerstown where he hit 23 home runs and 30 doubles but struck out 116 times 126 games. It took him some time to recover from being hit in the head by a pitch in 2010. Last year, he struggled with just a .210 average but still managed a .367 on-base average and 20 home runs.
Sometimes compared to Mike Napoli, Norris is the possible long-term solution at catcher should the A's be inclined to move Kurt Suzuki at any point over the next couple seasons. Defensively, the former third baseman is still a work in progress, but showed improvement in 2011. His priority will be to sharpen his receiving and throwing skills while maintaining his patient approach at the plate.
Norris' back-up will be Cuban veteran Joel Galarraga. The former member of the Cuban national team was signed out of the Mexican League signee before the 2009 season. He has struggled with a shoulder injury during his three years in the A's organization but is now healthy. Galarraga hit .357 in 13 games with the River Cats in 2009 before injuring his shoulder. He was loaned out to the Mexican League for part of the 2011 season, but spent eight games with Sacramento.
The Sacramento Outfield
The A's have plenty of depth in the outfield with six outfielders currently on their major league roster and another talented group of five suiting up for Sacramento. Three of those five are among the A's top prospects and the other two are accomplished minor league veterans with major league experience.
Michael Taylor will be returning to Sacramento for a third season. The importance of Taylor's 2012 cannot be understated after having a pair of underwhelming seasons since being acquired in December of 2009. His 816 OPS from 2011 was far from bad, but it doesn't compare to the impressive numbers he put up in Philadelphia's system before the A's acquired him. To be fair, Taylor did start out last year with a wrist injury that clearly had an impact on his ability to hit.
Having gotten a taste of the major leagues last September with 30 at-bats, Taylor has a more clear understanding of what's expected of him and where he can improve as a hitter. Oakland's outfield is very much solidified, so Taylor will be able to focus on hitting without having the thought of a potential promotion in the back of his mind to distract him. His batting average of .272 was the same in 2011 as it was in 2010, but he hit 16 home runs last year to just six the year before. Indeed, 2012 could make or break Taylor's career with the A's. But given the rise in his numbers last year - even while enduring the wrist injury - it's reasonable to expect Taylor to have a very good third season with the River Cats.
The highest-rated prospect among the River Cats' position players is Grant Green, who is entering his first full season as an outfielder after moving from shortstop to centerfield in July while playing for Double-A Midland. There, the A's 2009 first-round pick put up a solid .291/.343/.408 line with a 750 OPS before getting promoted to Sacramento to replace Taylor for the Pacific Coast League Playoffs. Green did well in his Triple-A debut, getting eight hits in seven games. But Green's best year as a pro came in 2010, where he amassed an 883 OPS with 20 home runs with the High-A Stockton.
Green has some maturing to do physically by adding some weight to his lean frame. But he's proven that he has the bat to become a major league player down the road. In his first full season at Triple-A, Green should go through the typical peaks and valleys of a young player at a new level. The A's would love to see Green expand on his numbers with the Rockhounds last year, especially in the power department. Green showed improved power at the Arizona Fall League this past off-season.
Green's development as an outfielder is also something to keep an eye on. He will be splitting time in centerfield with Jermaine Mitchell but will also see time in the outfield corners.
Mitchell has a breakout year in 2011 by leading the organization in total bases and posting a .401 on-base clip with a 853 OPS in 56 games with the River Cats. He was named the organization's Co-Minor League Player of the Year for his efforts. With Midland, Mitchell was nearly unconscious, hitting .355/.453/.589 with a 1042 OPS in 74 games before being promoted. During the offseason, Mitchell had microfracture surgery on his knee after playing with pain as the season concluded. He recovered way ahead of schedule after it was originally expected he would miss spring training and third first month of the season.
Mitchell will hope to prove that last season wasn't an aberration with another strong year in 2012. The club will keep a keen eye on his surgically repaired knee along with his numbers at the plate. Should the knee hold up, Mitchell is in a good position to have another good year atop the lineup in front of some good hitters.
Veterans Brandon Moss and Jeff Fiorentino round out the River Cats' outfield. Moss was acquired by the A's in December in an effort to stockpile some talent in the outfield. The 28-year-old has a solid career OPS of 822 in his nine minor league seasons. Since 2008, Moss has bounced around. Originally drafted by Boston in the eighth round in 2002, Moss played with Pittsburgh in 2010 and then moved to the Phillies' system in 2011. Last year was Moss' best season at the Triple-A level, putting up a line of .275/.368/.509 with a 877 OPS for Lehigh Valley. Over the last two years, the left-handed hitter has combined to hit 63 doubles and 45 home runs. Moss will likely spend some time DHing for the River Cats in 2012, but has the ability to play all three outfield positions.
The well-traveled Fiorentino has played all over the place, including Japan, since his last stint with the River Cats in 2008. He made stops at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels with Baltimore and Atlanta, before returning to Oakland in the offseason this year. He spent time in the big leagues as far back as 2005 and 2006, while also making a brief appearance with the A's in 2009's season opening series in Japan against the Red Sox. He has a career .270 average with a home run and 21 RBI in 58 big league games. The eight-year veteran's career minor on-base percentage of .360 falls in line with what Oakland is looking for.
The Sacramento Pitching Staff
Pitching has been a hallmark of the most successful River Cats' squads and the River Cats should have another talented staff in 2011. All of the pitchers on the Sacramento staff have some major league experience and/or significant Triple-A time.
One of the River Cats' top starters, at least early on in the season, will be Tyson Ross, who was the last cut made by the A's out of major league camp this spring. The Cal alum was optioned to Sacramento on Wednesday because the A's only need four starters in their rotation for the first week and a half of the season. It's likely Ross will only make one or two starts for the River Cats before getting called back up to be the No. 5 starter in the big leagues.
Ross is coming off a frustrating 2011 season marred by injuries and set backs. After straining an oblique in May, he found himself over compensating for the injury that eventually led to shoulder discomfort in July. He struggled regaining his velocity and command thereafter, which was reflected in his 7.61 ERA and 52 hits allowed in 36.2 innings.
Prior to his injury, the former second-round pick in 2008 was having a nice year with the A's. In nine appearances (six starts), he accumulated a 2.75 ERA and only allowed one home run in 36 innings. When healthy, Ross has always had plus stuff, including a hard fastball and slider. The concern with the 6'6" right-hander has been his rough delivery that appears stressful to his arm and shoulder. A switch to more fluid mechanics could be in Ross' future should he go through another year like the last. But some of his effectiveness lies in the deception of his delivery. Oakland is hoping Ross is able to piece together a nice year in the big leagues and become a mainstay in the rotation, or possibly as a reliever for years to come.
Jarrod Parker, the highest-rated pitching prospect in the A's system, was acquired in the offseason trade that sent Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks. Parker was considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball before undergoing Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2010. Parker returned to the mound in 2011 and while he put up good numbers for Double-A Mobile, he struggled with command to start the year. He did improve as the season went on and got a September start with the D-Backs and even make the postseason roster as a reliever. Parker allowed 4 hits in 5.2 innings with one strikeout and one walk against in his start against the Dodgers. In the playoffs, he allowed a run on two hits in a third of inning in Milwaukee.
The former ninth-overall selection of the 2007 draft had a chance to make the A's starting rotation this April, but didn't show the command the team was looking for. The club is in no rush to get Parker to the big leagues. When Parker is right, he features a mid-90s fastball with a curve, slider and changeup. Because most of the starters in the A's rotation are either unproven or have a background of injuries, Parker is first in line behind Ross to get the call up. But he will need to prove he has command of all his pitches before that can happen.
Right-hander Brad Peacock is another new addition to the A's organization after being acquired in the trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to Washington. Peacock is a power pitcher with a good fastball and hard-breaking curve. He wasn't thought of as much of a prospect until 2011, where his domination of the Double-A level led to a promotion to Triple-A and ultimately a brief stint in the big leagues, where he pitched well for the Nationals. In his three appearances, he allowed just seven hits in 12 innings, compiling a 0.75 ERA. In 16 appearances (14 starts) for Double-A Harrisburg, Peacock went 10-2 with a 2.01 ERA and 129 strikeouts in less than 100 innings. He showed vast improvement from the two previous years where his ERA was well over 4.00 in the Class-A and Double-A levels.
Peacock's deceptive delivery and short-arm motion have proven to be tough on hitters. Much like Parker, Peacock will be given time this year in the minors to refine his command and work on making his changeup a viable third pitch. It's possible that a few months of seasoning with the River Cats could turn into mid-season promotion with the A's depending on the health of the starting staff. If not, Peacock may wait until September to see time in the majors and be very much in the running for a spot in the rotation in 2013.
Veteran left-hander Fabio Castro figures to see time as a starter and as a reliever in 2012. The well-traveled left-hander spent the entire 2011 season with Triple-A Tacoma in the Mariners organization, where half of his 24 appearances were starts. He ended up 5-4 with a 3.63 ERA, allowing 74 hits in 79.1 innings. In 2006 and 2007, Castro spent time in the Phillies' bullpen, making 26 combined appearances with a 3.06 ERA.
Last season, Castro was relegated to the bullpen in early August after going on the disabled list June 21 with a fracture in his foot. In relief, he went 0-1 with a 2.29 ERA and a held hitters to just a .183 average. Castro was stretched back out as a starter in the Dominican Winter League, but struggled going 0-4 with a 6.12 ERA in 13 games, nine of which were starts. He figures to be at the back end of Sacramento's rotation, where he looks to regain his early 2011 form as a starter, where he posted a a 5-3 record with a 4.07 ERA.
Travis Banwart, the River Cats' Opening Night starter, will look to prove he's more than just a capable minor league starter in 2012. In three years with the River Cats, he has an ERA of 4.84 that hasn't jumped off the stat sheet. But he's proven to be durable making an average of 28 starts over the last three years.
There will be plenty of velocity in the River Cats' bullpen this year, as nearly all of the Sacramento relievers can reach the mid-90s. The hardest thrower in the group is Neil Wagner, who made his major league debut with the A's last season. In six games, he struggled with Oakland allowing 10 base runners in five innings with a 7.20 ERA. The right-hander threw well prior with Double-A Midland and Sacramento, however, combining to go 3-4 with a 3.26 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 66.1 innings. He hopes a strong year anchoring Sacramento's bullpen can earn him another trip to the big leagues where he can become a regular reliever for the A's. He remains on Oakland's 40-man roster. Wagner was clocked in the triple digits with his fastball at times last year.
Lefty Pedro Figueroa opened eyes this spring during his first healthy stint in big league camp. In 2009, Figueroa was named the Organizational Pitcher of the Year for his efforts at Low-A Kane County and High-A Stockton, where he went 13-6 with a 3.38 ERA. But things soured quickly for the Dominican Republic native who had Tommy John surgery midway through the 2010 season that caused him to miss most of 2011 campaign, as well.
Before the surgery, Figueroa was a starter, but after missing so much time, he has moved to the bullpen where his mid-90s fastball and sharp slider could lead to a high volume of strikeouts. If his command is there, it's very possible Figueroa could find himself in Oakland's bullpen later in the season.
The second of three lefties in the Sacramento bullpen is veteran and East Bay native Erick Threets. The former major league reliever is coming off Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2011. He figures to be one of the River Cats' top lefties out of the pen. In his three abbreviated stints with the Giants and White Sox, Threets went 0-1 with a 3.28 ERA, allowing 25 hits in 24.2 innings. The 6'5", 240-pounder appears to be recovered from the surgery after a very strong offseason in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. There, he went 1-1 with a 1.17 ERA in 32 relief appearances while striking out 40 in 30.2 innings. A strong season at Triple-A could vault Threets back into the big leagues because left-handed relievers can be valuable commodities.
South Bay native Carlos Hernandez is the third lefty in the River Cats' bullpen. Mostly a starter during his career in the A's system, he spent most of 2011 starting games, getting 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A. He went 12-8 with a 5.27 ERA, showing flashes of greatness that accompanied some horrendous outings. Some believe that Hernandez' best chance at the majors would be out the of the bullpen because of his solid K:BB ratio of 80:32. He could be in line get some starts with the River Cats, but will have to show more consistency to become a regular in the rotation.
Veteran right-hander Jim Miller joined the A's this off-season. The right-handed reliever has made two September stints in the major leagues with Baltimore in 2008 and Colorado in 2011. He has a save to his credit and a career 1.84 ERA in 14 games. The eight-year veteran made a career-high 65 appearances in 2011 with Colorado Springs before his promotion to the big leagues. Look for Miller to get a lion's share of work out of the River Cats bullpen where he hopes to improve on his numbers after allowing 93 in 72 innings last year.
Right-hander Merkin Valdez joins Threets as another former Giants' prospect in the Sacramento bullpen. He made his major league debut with San Francisco in 2004 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006 causing him to miss all of the next season. The right-hander combined to make 65 appearances for the Giants in 2008 and 2009, allowing a total 75 hits in 67 innings in his three years with the club. He went on to have a two-game stint with Toronto in 2010 and pitched five games for Texas in 2011, but struggled at both stops. The hard-thrower hopes to improve on his career 1.73 WHIP in the majors and earn a trip back to a big league bullpen.
Sacramento-area native Justin Souza returns to the River Cats' roster after a strong spring. The Seattle Mariners originally drafted the former attendee of American River College and Sacramento City College in the ninth-round in 2006. Jumping between Double-A and Triple-A the last three seasons, the six-year vet has a career 4.38 ERA in the minor leagues. After missing the start of the year rehabbing from flexor tendon surgery, Souza started 2011 in dominant fashion with Double-A Midland, posting a 1.33 ERA in 14 games in relief. But the right-hander came back to earth a bit with the River Cats, making 26 appearances and allowing 43 hits in 42.2 innings with a 4.85 ERA.
Right-handers Travis Schlichting and Evan Scribner round-out the Sacramento bullpen. Both pitchers spent the entire spring as part of the A's big league camp, having been sent down after the conclusion of the A's exhibition series with the San Francisco Giants. Schlichting is a former position player who made the successful conversion to the mound as part of the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers' organizations. The live-armed righty has 25.1 big league innings to his credit, all with the Dodgers, during which he had a 3.55 ERA. He struggled with his command in the big leagues, however, walking 15.
Scribner was acquired by the A's during the off-season as a waiver claim from the San Diego Padres' organization. The off-speed specialist made his major league debut last season but his season ended early with a shoulder injury. That injury did not limit him during spring training, however, and he had an impressive camp as a non-roster invitee. Scribner has outstanding command and a change-up that has been called "Bugs Bunny-esque". He began his career in the Diamondbacks' organization after being selected in the 28th round of the 2007 draft.