For the first time since 2006, the Oakland A's find themselves in the playoff race entering August. While that's been an unexpected development, Triple-A Sacramento's dominance in the Pacific Coast League is far from unexpected. After all, the team is working on its sixth-straight division title.
The River Cats once again find themselves atop the PCL Pacific South division standings with a record of 70-45 entering Sunday, giving them the league's best record. They're tied with the Indianapolis Indians for the highest winning percentage (.609) in all of Triple-A baseball.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this season and years past for the River Cats has been the level of productivity former River Cats have had when called up to Oakland.
Derek Norris, Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and a slew of relievers made the jump to the major leagues and contributed heavily to a team in the playoff hunt after a 19-5 July catapulted it to the top of the Wild Card race in the American League.
In recent seasons, players have shuttled up and down between Oakland and Sacramento with only a few finding sustainable success in the big leagues. The A's plan in the offseason was to rebuild from within the organization. If 2012's rise to contention is any indication, that foundation is set.
"We want these guys to have success and prepare them for success. To see them go up there and succeed, we love it. It's them. They put in the work. They do everything," Bush said.
Since the All-Star break, the River Cats have gone 16-9 and, after Sunday's win, have a six-game winning streak, the longest string of the season. The team had five winning streaks snapped at four games previously. In series play, the club has been outstanding, amassing a 15-5-9 mark for the year.
The turnover seen on the major league roster since April has infused Sacramento's roster with a significant amount of major league talent. Daric Barton, Kila Ka'aihue, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Recker, Graham Godfrey, Collin Cowgill and Tyson Ross all started the year with the A's and have since become cogs for the River Cats.
Barton has put together a solid season since coming back to Triple-A after failing to stick with the major league club. In 49 games, he's put together a .254/.398/.448 slash line with seven home runs and 23 driven in.
Since passing through waivers back in June, Ka'aihue has put together another strong campaign at the Triple-A level. He has hit 10 home runs in 39 games, giving him 73 career long balls in his five seasons in Triple-A.
"Kila's always had success in Triple-A. I know that when he came down here, he came down here with the mindset to improve his game," Bush said."As long as he does that, there's an opportunity for him to get better. He's progressively been getting better and better every day so that's good."
Ka'aihue was designated for assignment in June after the team elected to call up Moss and give him a shot at first base. Moss caught fire, cranking 11 round trippers in his first 31 games with the A's. Carter also hit well when he was promoted and has provided the club nine home runs in just over a month's service. The tandem's ability to hit for power at first base has made it unlikely Ka'aihue returns before rosters expand in September, unless he starts putting up huge numbers.
Graham Godfrey has continued his solid season since joining the River Cats. The 27-year-old is 9-1 in 16 starts, compiling a 3.18 ERA and earning a trip to the Triple-A All-Star game in Buffalo, New York. Having already been surpassed by Griffin and Straily, it's unlikely Godfrey will be recalled to the big leagues before September barring a string of injuries to the starting rotation.
For the first time in two seasons, Ross has strung together a string of good starts. Last year, he suffered an oblique injury in May that hampered him for the entire summer, causing him to struggle with his mechanics. This season, after being demoted on June 17, he's 4-2 with a 2.75 ERA in the PCL, which has a tendency to be very tough on pitchers.
Pitching coach Scott Emerson and Bush said they sat down with Ross three weeks ago to have a long conversation about what he needs to do to get back to the form that got him to the big leagues in the first place.
"Tyson, over the last two-year period, we've been looking for him to throw that changeup and we haven't really found that grip that we wanted. We've been looking for him to stabilize his mechanics and repeat his mechanics," Emerson said.
"We came up with a solution that me and him talked about back in Midland in 2009, and that's pretty much ‘stick your landing when you're pitching.' If he can stick his landing when he's pitching, and doesn't bail out as much to his glove side, he stays in what I call ‘the hallway,' and he'll have a consistent release point.
"When he has a consistent release point, all three pitches offer deception. All three pitches come out looking like a fastball out of his hand. He's really been able to do that in his last few starts and it's been fun watching him pitch."
Emerson went as far to say he believes Ross can be a frontline starting pitcher in the majors, or a late-inning reliever if he's able to maximize his talent and skill set. The A's will have a crowded competition for spots in the starting rotation for 2013, but it's reasonable to assume Ross' name will be in that discussion should he continue to build on his solid summer in Triple-A.
Comings and Goings
Since July 11, the A's have made roster moves between Oakland and Sacramento almost daily.
Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Cliff Pennington and Cowgill all spent time making rehab appearances. Cowgill has remained with the team since the end of his rehab and has struggled to get on base with the River Cats. His .244/.286/.378 slash line was concerning enough for the A's to promote Michael Taylor after Cowgill had proven to be the preferred player earlier in the season. Cowgill had suffered from a sprained left ankle with the A's before being sent down.
Taylor's stint with Oakland lasted just two games. Originally promoted to replace the injured Seth Smith on the roster, Taylor was sent back to Sacramento after going 0-for-5 in two games replacing Yoenis Cespedes, who had a minor wrist injury. Taylor was sent down on Sunday when the A's needed another reliever after playing three extra-inning games this week. Taylor has yet to receive any consistent playing time with the A's and has managed just a .143/.143/.190 slash line in 21 major league plate appearances.
The A's granted reliever Erick Threets his release per his request. The left-handed reliever had put together a very nice season in Sacramento, allowing 35 hits in 44 innings with a 1.84 ERA. He since signed with the Dodgers and was assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque where he's allowed three runs in five innings.
Oakland also landed Chris Ray on July 12, but then granted his release after six appearances with the River Cats July 26. He allowed four runs in six innings. With six seasons of major league experience under his belt, he had an out to leave the organization if he had not been promoted to the big leagues after two weeks.
After being optioned when the A's acquired catcher George Kottaras, Norris had an abbreviated three-game stint from July 31 to August 2 with Sacramento, where he went 2-for-9 with a home run. He rejoined Oakland when the A's traded Kurt Suzuki to the Washington Nationals. Norris is expected to be the team's everyday catcher for here on out.
Grant Green has continued to have a good season at the plate despite being played all over the field defensively. On Sunday he extended his season-high hitting streak to 12 games with a double and a home run. Over that span he has hit .370 with three long balls.
Since the All-Star break, Green has played seven games in left field, nine games at shortstop, two games at third and two games at second base.
"Infield's always been my first position, shortstop especially. Outfield's fun as well," Green said.
"I've been working with Bushy on a daily basis (in the infield). Really charging balls. First step's real quick. Throws are real consistent. We've been working on that a lot. It's been about getting game reps and implementing what we're working on out there."
Bush said that Green's approach at the plate is continuing to get better. He came to Sacramento needing to improve his pitch selection and grow into his 6'3" frame and develop more power.
With his two home runs on Sunday, outfielder Shane Peterson has been about as hot as a hitter can be since joining the River Cats on July 2. He's put together a 1205 OPS in 20 games since being promoted from Double-A Midland.
It's not Peterson's first time in Sacramento. He played 46 games for the River Cats in 2011 and hit .293/.377/.479 before being sent back to Midland thanks to a numbers crunch on the River Cats' roster.
Peterson is the remaining player in the A's system from the Matt Holliday trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. If he's able to maintain his hot bat throughout the rest of the season, he could be added to the 40-man roster and make his major league debut in September.
With another hit on Sunday, Barton extended his season-high hitting streak to 11 games while Anthony Recker extended his own to nine games. Barton is hitting .268 during his run, while Recker is swinging at a .470 clip during his streak.