Year after year, the Sacramento River Cats find a way to overcome the promotions of their best players to the major leagues to finish as one of the Pacific Coast League's best teams. This season was no different, as the oft-depleted A's Triple-A affiliate finished with the league's best record (83-58) and won its 11th division championship in 13 years since moving to Sacramento – a level of success unparalleled in minor league baseball.
But unlike last year, the team fell in five games in the first round of the postseason play to the Reno Aces, who went on to win the Triple-A Championship over Pawtucket of the International League.
In what has become standard of the Oakland A's system, the team won because of solid pitching, defense and hitters getting on-base at a quality rate. Sacramento lost talented players such as Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Josh Donaldson and a plethora of arms to Oakland throughout the season, but they were able to replace them effectively.
The 2006 season was the last time Sacramento failed to reach the postseason. Next year, the River Cats will look to make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.
Offensively, the River Cats were in the middle of the pack with a .276 team average, but excelled in on-base percentage (.363) and slugging (.451), despite playing their home games at one of the tougher ballparks on hitters in the PCL.
As a whole, the PCL hit .278, meaning Sacramento was just under the league average. But the team was 15 points higher in on-base percentage and 21 points better in slugging over the league marks.
The team led the league with 171 home runs, well ahead of second-place New Orleans (153) and the league average of 132.5.
River Cats' Hitters
Grant Green led the River Cats in games played and at-bats. He also had one of the most interesting seasons of any minor leaguer in the A's system. The former first-round selection as a shortstop started the year in the outfield – where he made the initial transition in July 2011 – and spent time back in the infield during the second half of the season.
Green played 49 games in left field, 30 in center, 19 at second base, 19 at shortstop and 11 at third base in 2012. The organization painted the situation as an attempt to diversify Green's talents to create a high level of versatility. While that could be the case, Green didn't stand out at any one position defensively. According to scouts, his best position is likely left or center field, but given the A's depth in the outfield it's unlikely he would be able to crack the 25-man roster there.
There's also some that question whether or not his power plays enough in the outfield. However, the stringy 25-year-old will still grow into his body and develop more power as time goes on. It just isn't happening at the ideal rate right now for a corner outfielder.
It's believed that Green will compete at second base at the top of the organization ladder, since it's likely he will be added to the 40-man roster to avoid the Rule 5 draft.
But second base is a crowded position both in the majors and at Triple-A. He will be competing with incumbent Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore, who is also in the mix at third base heading into 2013. Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard also figure in, but likely in utility roles.
There are few questions about Green's bat, which took a step in the right direction in his first full season at Triple-A. He hit .296/.338/.458 with 15 home runs and 75 RBIs. While his slash line is similar to his previous minor league numbers, coaches raved about Green's improvement in pitch selection and contact rate as the season went on.
Green struck out a career-low 75 times after averaging 118 in his previous two seasons at High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland. For the third year in a row, Green is spending time in the Arizona Fall League, this time getting accustomed to second base. At 6'3", Green's build is certainly unconventional at the position. He might be one of the most intriguing players to track during spring training.
Outfielder Michael Taylor might have been the best and most consistent hitter in the River Cats' lineup while manning right field almost exclusively. Taylor hit .287/.405/.441 with 12 home runs and 67 driven in, while also stealing 18 bases.
Taylor has become an enigma of the A's system and doesn't have much more to prove at the Triple-A level. It has become apparent that the gaudy power numbers he produced in the Phillies' system before coming to Oakland might be beyond his reaches after putting up very good, but not great numbers, with Sacramento during the last three seasons.
However, his career-high .405 on-base clip in 2012 should not be overlooked and proves he deserves a prolonged shot at the major league level. However, that shot might not be available in Oakland, as the team appears pretty set in the outfield (barring injury).
Taylor still possesses plenty of upside and physical ability, making him an attractive trade target for other teams with an opening at a corner outfield spot given its unlikely he'll get that shot with the A's.
Outfielder Jermaine Mitchell came into the season with high expectations after his banner 2011 where the speedster hit .302/.401/.453 with the River Cats after starring with Double-A Midland, earning him a spot on the 40-man roster last fall. But after starting off red-hot in April, Mitchell fell on hard times in May and June, hitting .133 and .221 for each month, respectively. He finished the year hitting .252/.345/.386, which is respectable considering those rough two months. He also had micro-fracture surgery on his knee in the offseason and recovered very quickly.
Mitchell is another player on the fringe for the A's, and his services might be sought by another team via a trade this off-season. A healthy offseason should be very beneficial for Mitchell, who could be in store for another big season as the 27-year-old re-enters his healthy prime and what might be his third season at the Triple-A level.
Shortstop Brandon Hicks came to Oakland's organization in March near the tail-end of spring training. He was selected off waivers from the Atlanta Braves to provide organizational depth to the left side of the infield.
Hicks turned out to be a valuable pick up, filling in at shortstop for the A's in 22 games. In the majors, he hit three home runs, including a walk-off home run on July 18 over the Texas Rangers, who Oakland went on to edge in the division race, which came down to the last day of the regular season.
Hicks hit just .172 during his 22-game stint with the A's that lasted from the end of June through most of July, and then again in September. He finished 2012 having played 90 games for the River Cats, where he amassed a team-leading 856 OPS and finished third in total bases, despite hitting just .244.
Stephen Parker played 88 games at third base for the River Cats – leading the team – but didn't do much to distinguish himself as a prospect worthy of competing for a 40-man roster spot. He came into the season with Sacramento's third base job virtually in hand after Donaldson broke camp with the A's.
After posting impressive on-base numbers in his previous two seasons, Parker's .327 OBP in 2012 left something to be desired, as did his defense. Another year in Triple-A could allow Parker a chance to improve at the plate and make himself a viable third base option should the A's need him. He showed promise for High-A Stockton in 2010 when he hit 21 home runs and had a 900 OPS, but will need to improve considerably to become a serious prospect instead of a placeholder in at the Triple-A level.
Chris Carter had a very interesting season in 2012. He actually hit for less power than he did in 2011, slugging .486 compared to .530. But once he was promoted to the A's, things really clicked at the plate and he finally provided the power threat the team had been hoping he would become since acquiring him in the Dan Haren trade prior to 2008.
The big first baseman posted a 1413 OPS in his first nine games with Oakland, hitting five home runs in 26 at-bats, giving the lineup a much-needed spark that ended up kick-starting the team to its huge run in July and through the rest of the regular season.
Carter went on to have a very good July and August while platooning at first base with Brandon Moss. But his production took a significant dip once the calendar changed to September, where he hit just .148/.284/.361, which was likely a product of wear and tear from his first extended look in the major leagues.
After putting up an OPS of 853 and above in the last three seasons with the River Cats, it's very likely Carter has taken his last cuts as a regular at the Triple-A level. Given his vast improvement at the plate in 2012 from 2011 in the majors, Oakland will likely head into the season with Carter in the fold as half the platoon option at first base (with Moss) and could also get a significant number of at-bats as a designated hitter.
Adam Rosales got 275 at-bats with the River Cats, hitting well with a .280/.340/.451 slash line that included eight home runs and 21 doubles. He spent his time in Sacramento staying ready for a potential call up to the A's. As it turns out, Rosales went on to play an important role for the A's down the stretch when he made starts at second base and shortstop where he performed admirably, especially with the glove.
Outfielder Collin Cowgill played in 66 games for Sacramento after opening the season on the A's roster as the sixth outfielder. In Oakland, he was used in late-game situations to pinch-run or enter as a defensive replacement.
Cowgill would bounce back and fourth from Triple-A to the majors, but suffered an ankle injury in a game against the San Francisco Giants on June 22, when he dove unsuccessfully to catch a ball toward the left field line. He didn't return to the A's until the rosters expanded in September.
In the meantime, Cowgill hit .254/.312/.373 with the River Cats and was unable to regain the stroke that landed him on the 25-man roster out of spring training. With the promotion of Moss, the A's need for another outfielder was satisfied given Moss' ability to play a corner position while having the versatility to play first base.
Cowgill has always been a favorite of manager Bob Melvin dating back to their time together with the Diamondbacks. The team still likes Cowgill's ability to play all three outfield positions at a plus level while providing a speed and energy element to the club. However, Cowgill's chances at making the club out of spring training were made much tougher with the acquisition of Chris Young, who also has similar versatility. Cowgill will be an interesting name to watch, and perhaps a trade commodity if he has another great spring at the plate.
Overall, first baseman Daric Barton had a disappointing 2012 after trying to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2011. That being said, his .411 on-base clip with Sacramento in 74 games proved that he still has the ability to take pitches, and he could potentially hold his own offensively.
With the emergence of Moss and Carter at first base, Barton might not get another chance to reclaim his starting spot with the A's, barring injury. He's likely the best defensive first baseman in the entire organization, but his lack of power compared to the others has him starting 2013 in the minor leagues, or perhaps with a new organization that would be willing to give him a chance at the major league level.
Fellow first baseman Kila Ka'aihue had a very similar season to Barton. Both players had a chance to stick at first base, but didn't hit consistently enough and ended up platooning together with the River Cats.
Known for his power, Ka'aihue was acquired last offseason as a potential wild card to add to the fold at first base with Barton and Brandon Allen – who also failed to produce enough to stay in Oakland.
While Barton had an 835 OPS with Sacramento, Ka'aihue edged him with a 863 mark, thanks to nearly doubling Barton's home run output despite getting on base considerably less. The Honolulu, Hawaii, native combined to hit 19 home runs between the A's and River Cats (15 in Triple-A) and put up numbers similar to the rest of his career in the minor leagues.
Ka'aihue provides intriguing power, but his ability to get on base in the minors has yet to translate to the show, making him a tough sell to the major league level. That notion was proven when he passed through waivers after being designated for assignment on June 6. He enters this offseason as a free agent, and will likely find himself back in the minor leagues somewhere to start next season.
Catcher Derek Norris started his first season with his new organization very well, hitting .329/.344/.565 with Triple-A Sacramento in April before cooling off considerably in the following months. But the A's brass decided that he had proven enough to be tagged as the team's primary catcher, allowing them to move the incumbent Kurt Suzuki to the Washington Nationals in a post-deadline trade.
Norris certainly showed some upside with the A's, but hit just .201/.276/.349 in 60 games. Defensively, he lacked consistency when it came to blocking balls in the dirt, which became very apparent in the divisional series against the Tigers. He ended up throwing out 26 percent of would-be base stealers, which is a number he should be able to improve upon in time.
Norris did hit seven home runs for Oakland, including a three-run, walk-off against the Giants. Norris possesses all the tools that should be make him a reliable backstop going forward.
It will be interesting to see if the A's still have the same mindset when it comes to their catchers. If Jason Kendall and Suzuki have proven anything, it's that over-working catchers could have serious ramifications down the road. Both Kendall and Suzuki saw significant declines in their offensive production after being atop baseball in innings caught season after season. Perhaps acquiring George Kottaras will signal a shift in that philosophy which points more towards a two-catcher system.
Josh Donaldson's season was very emblematic of the A's success in 2012. He broke camp as the starting third baseman with Sizemore's injury, but had just three hits in nine games to start the year. He was optioned to Sacramento April 23 in favor of Luke Hughes. A week later, the A's signed Brandon Inge to bring stability to the position.
Donaldson was then brought back to the A's in May when Yoenis Cespedes hit the 15-day disabled list after injuring his hand before a game during batting practice. Two days later, Inge also went on the DL, allowing Donaldson to get regular at-bats again. Donaldson went on to have a 487 OPS for the month, while the team hit a low point during a 4-11 stretch that had many believing the team was incapable of becoming a contender.
Donaldson would bounce back and forth between the A's and River Cats in June and July, but got hot with Sacramento's weather in 24 July games, where he had a 913 OPS that included six home runs and 21 RBIs. In 51 total games in Triple-A, he hit .335/.402/.598 with 13 long balls and just 34 strikeouts.
The former catcher spent a lot of his time working with Sacramento hitting coach Greg Sparks on refining his approach at the plate, which paved the way for a major league resurgence in August after Inge sustained a season-ending shoulder injury. The suddenly hot-hitting Donaldson joined a lineup that could do no wrong. He put up an 844 OPS in the final 47 games of the season.
If Donaldson is able to build off his success during the final few months of the 2012 season, there's a very strong possibility he could regain his starting spot at third base for 2013, depending on what happens with Sizemore and the second base position.
Catcher Anthony Recker moved up and down between Sacramento and Oakland for the first two months and struggled to find consistent at-bats as the backup catcher to Suzuki. He hit just .129 in 13 games with the A's before being optioned to the River Cats on May 28.
In 52 games in Triple-A, Recker compiled a 793 OPS with nine homers and 29 driven in while sharing time at catcher and designated hitter. He was designated for assignment when Oakland needed to clear a 40-man roster spot for Brett Anderson's return to the starting rotation, and was ultimately traded to the Cubs for catching prospect Blake Lalli. Recker spent the final month of the season with the Cubs and was recently claimed off waivers by the New York Mets
Moss came into the season as an after-thought by most observers, but he turned out to be one of the A's major contributors as the season wore on. His first 51 games of the season came with Sacramento, where he hit .286/.371/.582 with 15 homers before getting promoted to Oakland in June. Moss had a provision in his contract with the A's that would allow him to seek opportunities elsewhere if he hadn't been in the major leagues by that point, so the A's decided to give him a chance at first base, which proved to be one of its best decisions it made all year.
Moss' impact with the A's was immediate. In his first 14 games, he hit seven home runs with 12 RBIs helping the team immensely during a 10-4 stretch that kick-started the team's hot run through the rest of the season. He went on to post an OPS over 834 and above over the season's final four-plus months and became a top power threat in a lineup that prided itself on hitting the ball out of the ballpark. Moss struggled in the postseason, however, getting just two singles in his 15 at-bats in the division series against the Tigers, who pitched him very well.
Moss appeared to be a very good fit with the A's. His ability to play outfield and first bodes very well for him going forward, and the A's will likely let him continue in the same role in 2013. His transition to first base was relatively seamless. The team appears to be very comfortable with the combination of Moss and Carter going forward.
Utility infielder Eric Sogard played very well in his 37 games in Sacramento. He hit .331/.417/.484 in his limited sample while he went back and fourth between Triple-A and Oakland.
In limited at-bats with the A's, he struggled in to find a semblance of consistency and hit just .167/.206/.275 mostly in a backup role before sustaining ankle and back injuries that thwarted the second half of his season. Sogard's defensive versatility is a plus, but he is still looking to show he can hit left-handers well enough to stick in the major leagues consistently. He's likely to compete for a backup role in spring training.
Wes Timmons was a popular name among fans to get a shot at the A's third base job once Sizemore was hurt. As the season went on, it appeared he wasn't quite ready for the job despite his solid year at the plate in 2011 when he hit .321 in 56 games.
Timmons was constantly shuffled on and off the River Cats roster in 2012 while dealing with a number of minor injuries that prevented him from getting consistent playing time. In 49 games, he amassed a 653 OPS. Timmons is a free agent again this fall and may seek opportunities elsewhere.
Shane Peterson made waves throughout the organization with the numbers he put up in Sacramento in the second half of the season. He hit .442 in July, .333 in August and got five hits in 10 September at-bats. He was promoted from Midland to start July, after hitting having a respectable 862 OPS in the Texas League.
Peterson finished the season with the River Cats having hit .389/.484/.618 with seven home runs in 28 games. The former second-round pick is just 24-years-old, and remains a very intriguing prospect. However, his physical traits make him hard to classify. He doesn't possess the natural power of a major league corner outfielder or first baseman, nor does he have the speed and range of a center fielder. It's likely the A's will keep Peterson in their back pocket going forward and give him another shot to start the season at Triple-A Sacramento to see if he come close to replicating his numbers of 2012.
Luke Hughes played in 35 games for the River Cats before being released on July 17 and signing with the Blue Jays, who placed him at Triple-A Las Vegas for the rest of the season. The native Australian was acquired by Oakland from Minnesota to get a chance at third base after Donaldson struggled to hold the spot. He played in just four games in the green and gold, getting just one hit in 13 at-bats.
Perhaps the biggest name to play for the River Cats in some time was Manny Ramirez, who served a 50-game suspension at the start of the season before getting a chance to play. The A's took a flier on Ramirez as a typical signing of the Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas-ilk to see if they could catch lightning in a bottle.
Ramirez didn't fair poorly in his 17 games in the PCL, but he didn't do enough to garner serious consideration for a major league spot. He hit .302/.348/.349 and with just three doubles and no home runs. The power-starved A's (at the time) didn't feel it was necessary to add Ramirez and the potential sideshow it involved if he wasn't going to bring a true home run threat to the lineup.
The team also liked what it saw in Jonny Gomes, who had become one of the most respected and well-liked players in a clubhouse that thrived on chemistry as the season wore on. There's no telling what losing Gomes and adding Ramirez would have done to such a successful dynamic, but it seems clear that not adding Ramirez to the 25-man roster was the right move to make.
Ramirez and the A's had an amicable parting of ways after it became apparent Oakland wasn't going to bring back up the major leagues.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the second part of this article, which will review the River Cats' pitchers.