Sacramento Notebook: New Faces

WEST SACRAMENTO, CA - September is always a tricky month in baseball, especially for Triple-A clubs competing in the postseason. With the playoffs starting in early September, teams juggle the idea of promoting key prospects to the big leagues against keeping them in the minors to receive regular at-bats.

The Oakland A's have used both strategies thus far, promoting outfielder Collin Cowgill, relievers Tyson Ross and Jim Miller and infielder Brandon Hicks. Players on the 40-man roster that remain in Triple-A for the playoffs include first baseman Daric Barton, outfielders Jermaine Mitchell and Michael Taylor, second baseman Jemile Weeks and pitchers Dan Straily and Brad Peacock.

With Oakland in serious contention for a playoff berth, the organization is less willing to give away at-bats or innings to prospects as they have been in years passed. That's why most executives find value in the minor league postseason process.

In Sacramento last September, Grant Green made his Triple-A debut – a move designed to throw one of the organization's best hitting prospects into the fire and help him understand what to expect when he would start the next season there. Green admitted early this year that getting those initial Triple-A at-bats helped ease the adjustment period.

This season, the A's have done the same with a few notable prospects such as starting pitcher Sonny Gray and shortstop Josh Horton.

But the biggest name on the River Cats' roster remains Weeks, who is looking to regain the form that had him pegged as one of the only untradeable pieces in the entire organization this past off-season.

Weeks learning to adjust

Weeks' biggest obstacle during his ascent up the Athletics' organizational depth chart was his health, not his ability to hit. In 2008 through 2010, the former first-round selection missed a considerable amount of time while dealing with various lower-body ailments, including a hip injury that sidelined him at various points in each of those three seasons.

In parts of two seasons with the Double-A Midland Rockhounds, Weeks posted a career-low 713 OPS as he battled those hip problems that began in 2008 when he initially injured the hip running out a groundball with the Low-A Kane County Cougars. When healthy with High-A Stockton and Triple-A Sacramento, he had an 828 and 857 OPS respectively.

Weeks set the bar incredibly high after his outstanding rookie campaign with the A's when he hit .303/.340/.421 in his first 97 big league games. He was unable to replicate those numbers this year, hitting .220/.305/.302 for the A's before being demoted August 24 to iron out some mechanical issues.

"You get to the big leagues and it's tough to make an adjustment there," Sacramento hitting coach Greg Sparks said.

"It's really the first time he's tried to change anything. He's had success until now. That little change, will it work? It's hard to tell yet. It could be an in-between-type thing. We're in constant communication with Chili [Davis] and have been sending him video to look at. We like the progress right now."

Sparks and Weeks acknowledged that they have diagnosed his mechanical issues that have to do with his swing plane, caused by an issue with his initial setup in the box. All appeared well in his first eight games with the River Cats. Weeks hit .417/.488/.528 with four doubles and nine runs driven in.

But in his next three games, Weeks went hitless in 14 at-bats and has remained in Sacramento since rosters expanded earlier in the week. Thursday, he hit a solo home run in the River Cats' playoff game - his first in any game since April 13 in Seattle.

"It's good, taking a step back," Weeks said.

"It wasn't the pressure. I really wasn't feeling the pressure as far as fans. I was more just not able to be myself at that time."

If not for a loophole dealing with players on the disabled list, Weeks might have already been back with the A's to be allowed to play in the postseason. But because the team put reliever Andrew Carignan on the 60-day disabled list, it was allotted an extra player to add to the postseason roster, if the A's were to make the postseason. It's a fairly safe assumption that Weeks will return to Oakland at some point before the regular season ends.

But whether or not he returns as the A's starting second baseman remains to be seen.

Horton making the most of his opportunity

Shortstop Josh Horton was promoted back to Sacramento after putting together a solid season with the Rockhounds at Double-A, where he hit .278/.346/.410 with nine home runs and 56 RBIs. He replaced Hicks, who was added to the A's roster September 1 to provide infield depth and versatility.

Horton struggled in 2011 after dealing with a hamstring injury that limited him to 27 games. He began the year with Sacramento but wound-up back with the Rockhounds, although he was re-injured in his first game back with Midland and missed the second half of the season.

Horton has seemingly played in Midland forever. In a whopping 355 career games with the Rockhounds, he has put together a .274/.346/.376 slashline, which isn't bad considering hitters usually struggle with the elements in the Texas League.

"Horton is a solid baseball player. I've been fortunate enough to have him for three and half years," Sacramento manager Darren Bush said.

"He's going to play hard, he's going to give you the best at-bat that he can, he's going to play the best defense he can and he does a good job."

Now healthy, Horton has an opportunity to stick with the River Cats going into next season, but still remains a long shot to be added to the 40-man roster any time soon. He will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft if he isn't added to the 40-man roster this off-season.

Sonny Gray getting his first look at Triple-A

Gray, the prized first-round selection of the 2011 draft, appeared to be a quick study during his professional debut last year. After just one start in the Arizona League, he jumped directly to Double-A Midland to make five starts before ending the season. He went 1-0 and with a 0.45 ERA and allowed just 21 base-runners in 20 innings.

"Last year and just trying to get my feet wet in professional baseball," Gray said.

"It went really well and definitely gave me better understanding of what coming into this year would be like."

The right-hander exemplifies the idea that some pitchers in major college programs join minor league teams as more polished products. Gray's numbers at Vanderbilt improved in each of his three seasons in the SEC. He finished his junior season with a 12-4 record and 2.43 ERA in 19 starts.

In Gray's first start with Triple-A Sacramento, he yielded four runs on 10 hits in just four frames. He admitted that nerves might have gotten the best of him in that start.

"I'm not going to say I wasn't nervous," Gray said.

"They were putting the ball in play and I was continuously 1-0, 2-0 to every single hitter. Can't really do that at any level, especially here."

Gray struggled in the first half of the year with the Rockhounds. He went 2-7 with a 5.11 ERA through July 2, but leveled out his numbers in the second half. In 13 starts, he went 4-4 with a 3.68 ERA while lifting his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1.35 to 2.12.

Given his size and pitching repertoire, the 22-year-old is often likened to former A's ace Tim Hudson. But instead of a split-finger fastball, Gray's put-away pitch is his changeup that he pairs with his curveball. Since turning pro, he's worked on varying grips for his fastball after only throwing a two-seamer in college.

Despite not dominating the Texas League like he did in his first five starts last year, Gray still projects to start next season with Triple-A Sacramento, assuming he continues to progress in spring training. With the promotion of Dan Straily from Sacramento to Oakland on Thursday, Gray could be in line for at least one more start with the River Cats before the postseason concludes.

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