Since coming to Sacramento in 2000 with Bob Geren at the helm as manager, the River Cats have made it to postseason play in 10 of their 12 seasons. New manager Steve Scarsone joins the team after two seasons with Double-A Midland to keep the winning tradition going with what could be the club's most talented Opening Day roster to date.
The River Cats have five former first-round picks and a number of players who were in play for major league jobs as late as three weeks into spring training. Jemile Weeks, Grant Green, Michael Choice, Sonny Gray and James Simmons headline the group, while Michael Taylor and Shane Peterson hope to play themselves into a major league promotion.
The River Cats Infielders and Catchers
Second base will be the position under the microscope for Sacramento, as Green and Weeks will share the position and compete for a possible promotion should the platoon of Eric Sogard and Scott Sizemore not work out in Oakland, or should one of the players go down with an injury.
Scarsone said he spoke at length with A's executives and coaches on how the River Cats will handle the second base position, mentioning the designated hitter will be used frequently for one of the two players. He also noted other positions could be used to get Green and Weeks more time, which likely means Green won't be totally limited to second base duty. He's spent time at every position except pitcher and catcher throughout his minor league career.
Green's bat might be the most major league ready of any prospect within the organization, but his evolution defensively is still far from ready for the highest level. The A's moved the former shortstop to the outfield in the summer of 2011 - where he stuck for most of 2012 – before moving getting some time back in the infield later in the season. Green played third, short and second base before the club announced second base would be his focus this offseason. Green hit .296/.338/.458 with 15 homers in 2012. His 796 OPS was his best mark since his first full pro season in High-A Stockton in 2010 when he hit 20 long balls.
How he handles the challenges of second base – particularly turning the double play – will go a long way toward determining his future with the organization. His power production will go a long way, as well. Green has constantly been trying to gain weight and get stronger, which would help is major league prospects drastically. For now, the 6'3'' Green will be working to his improve his footwork and feel around the bag.
Weeks is also an interesting case. He broke into the major leagues and had a very good rookie year, hitting .303/.340/.421 in 97 games, but his numbers dropped up significantly in his sophomore season, before getting demoted back to Sacramento in 2012.
The switch-hitting speeder saw a five percent drop in his line drive rate while hitting 10 percent more fly balls from his first to second seasons. Taking his speed out of the play clearly inhibited Weeks as some believed he was trying to hit for more power, which led to bad mechanics at the plate.
Weeks - a typically solid spring training player – hit very well in Cactus League play this year, but he suffered a shoulder injury, which allowed him to play in just 11 big league games. His .370/.424/.556 slash line wasn't enough to warrant a spot on the A's 25-man roster. Injuries have plagued Weeks throughout his minor league career, so sustained success at the Triple-A level will help Weeks' standing in Oakland. Weeks' rookie season could be viewed as a fluke given his .350 BABIP, but there isn't a second baseman in the organization as dynamic. This season could go a long way toward defining Weeks' future with the A's.
Scott Moore joins the River Cats with 430 major league plate appearances under his belt with the Cubs, Orioles and Astros. The A's signed the corner infielder as a minor league free agent in the offseason and he will likely get the majority of his at-bats as a third baseman, but will also see time at first and designated hitter. Moore compiled a 712 OPS in 152 career major league games and has an 807 OPS in his 11 minor league seasons. Moore could be a candidate for a promotion should the A's need depth at either third or first.
Andy Parrino – also a member of the A's 40-man roster – will get the lion's share of time at shortstop, but he also has the ability to play third and second base. Oakland acquired Parrino this offseason in the trade that sent that sent Tyson Ross to the Padres. The switch-hitter appeared in 79 games over the last two seasons for San Diego, hitting a modest .200/.319/.256 with a homer and 10 driven in. Parrino has a 778 career minor league OPS in six seasons and is another player viewed as a capable depth replacement should the A's need it.
Josh Horton is back in Sacramento after spending most of last season with Double-A Midland where he hit .278/.346/.410 with nine homers and 26 doubles. Like Parrino, Horton can play all over the diamond but he has spent most of his time at shortstop. Horton has been a victim of the numbers game in the A's organization and has a hard time getting a significant look past the Double-A level. The former second-round pick has played 355 games with Midland and also made 29 appearances in two different stints with the River Cats. This season could be Horton's chance to take the next step and become a viable major league option should he earn enough at-bats with the River Cats.
The A's and Nationals must have very similar criteria when it comes to evaluating catchers. David Freitas came over from Washington's organization last season in the Kurt Suzuki deal, just months after the A's acquired Derek Norris from Washington. The Nationals had Freitas at High-A at the time of the deal and the 23-year-old was sent by the A's directly to Double-A Midland where he put up very good numbers albeit in a very limited sample.
Freitas hit .333/.392/.524 with a pair of homers in 20 games in Midland and made a good enough impression to earn a promotion to Sacramento to start the season. To make it as far as Triple-A with just three seasons of professional experience as a catcher bodes very well for Freitas, who will get plenty of at-bats to see if his promotion was warranted. Should he struggle, he might be in line for a demotion to get more seasoning at the Double-A level.
Luke Montz came to the A's as a minor league free agent in November and made a good enough impression in spring camp to be tabbed as the A's first minor league option at catcher should one of their major league backstops land on the DL. Montz is 29 and has 10 years of minor league experience under his belt. He had a brief cup of coffee in the major leagues with Nationals, continuing the theme of former Nationals' catchers in the A's system.
While Montz doesn't hit for a high average and has on-base clips that jump all over the map throughout his career, a constant has been his power. He's hit 51 homers over the last two seasons in the Marlins' organization. An added plus for Montz is his ability to play first base, where he could get some of his at-bats considering the makeup of Sacramento's roster. Montz isn't like to become a long-term option in the A's plans, but it wouldn't come as a surprise to see him in green and gold at some point this summer if Oakland suffers an injury to a backstop.
The River Cats Outfielders
Michael Choice will make his Sacramento debut this season after he suffered a broken hand in July of last summer with Midland. The 23-year-old was had a slow start in the Texas League, but he was red-hot before the injury. The A's invited their former top pick from 2010 to major league camp and he hit .313/.346/.458 in 52 plate appearances this spring, which was an encouraging sign after the hand injury.
Choice likely has the most power of any A's prospect and could find himself on the major league doorstep at some point this summer should a spot open up in Oakland. The center fielder has a similar blend of speed and power to Yoenis Cespedes. Choice said he was able to absorb a lot in spring training from the A's current batch of outfielders and comes into the season feeling very comfortable with his approach.
Shane Peterson rejoins the River Cats after his stellar second half of 2012 and very good spring training with the A's. Peterson hit .389/.484/.618 in 38 games last year in Sacramento and kept his hot streak going this spring. In 54 Cactus League plate appearances, Peterson led Oakland outfielders with a .408/.463/.653 with a homer and seven doubles. Peterson is another prospect looking to hit his way out of the "tweener" label, not possessing enough power for his natural corner outfield position and not enough speed to make the transition to center field in a major league capacity.
But Peterson's numbers shouldn't be ignored, especially if he's able to maintain his 2012 and spring levels of production. The A's outfield is crowded, but an injury or trade could put him in the conversation should the team need a left-handed bat.
Connor Crumbliss continues his steady rise up the organizational ladder in 2013 with a promotion from Double-A to Triple-A where he hopes to continue to get on-base at monstrous levels. In his four minor league seasons, Crumbliss has reached base at a combined .416 clip with 402 walks to 312 strikeouts.
Crumbliss is coming off a season where he led all of the minor leagues in walks with 120, while no other player reached triple digits. At 26, Crumbliss could be on the verge of become a viable major league option, although his defense might not play right away. His natural position is second base, but he's been played in the outfield much more lately. Even if he's brought in as a bench player, there is always a place for someone that gets on base at the type of rate Crumbliss has over the last few seasons. With second base occupied by Green and Weeks for the time being, look for Crumbliss to continue to get work left field.
Michael Taylor will be back with Sacramento for the fourth-straight season and will likely become the team leader in almost every statistical category purely out of longevity. The self-deprecating outfielder has had maintained a positive attitude toward his standing with the organization and understands he's a major injury away from getting any significant at-bats with the big league team - although he might have more competition this season than ever with Choice and Peterson also proving their viability this spring.
The Stanford alum has continued to tinker with his approach at the plate throughout his minor league career. While his power numbers don't fall completely in line with his 6'5'' stature in the box, he's coming off his best season at the Triple-A level where he led the Pacific Coast League in walks and had his highest on-base percentage (.405) since 2009 at Double-A in the Phillies' organization.
Taylor has proven about as much as anyone can at the Triple-A level and he mentioned at FanFest that his new approach for this season will be to yank everything to the left and hit the ball as high as he can. He may not have been completely serious when discussing his approach with the media, but the notion certainly shed some light on Taylor's mindset coming into the season.
The bottom line with Taylor: he won't get an extended major league opportunity (although he likely deserves one) until he's able to combine his patience at the plate with the type of power he should have given his immense level of strength. Oakland's outfield appears to be set for next year or so, and Taylor's opportunity in the major leagues might come with another organization. If the A's have decided that Taylor has no future in their outfield, then look for Taylor to be traded at some point to clear some space in Sacramento's crowded outfield.
The River Cats' Starting Pitchers
Left-hander Andrew Werner will be Sacramento's Opening Day starter. He has come a long way since going undrafted out of the University of Indianapolis and being forced to play two seasons of independent ball before latching on to San Diego's organization. The soft-tosser joined the A's as apart of the trade that sent Tyson Ross and A.J. Kirby Jones to the Padres and also brought back Andy Parrino.
Werner was able to make it to the major leagues last season for eight starts where he went 2-3 with a 5.58 ERA and considerably lower FIP of 4.09, thanks to a bloated BABIP of .328. As he's done throughout his minor league career, Werner did a good job of inducing ground balls thanks to the natural sink on his mid-80s fastball.
This season will be Werner's first extended look at the Triple-A level after making just four starts there before getting promoted to the big leagues by the Padres. He might be behind Dan Straily and Sonny Gray on the organizational depth chart, but there is an outside chance that Werner makes his A's debut at some point in 2013.
Jesse Chavez is the River Cats' No. 2 starter and brings with him a wealth of major league experience, having appeared in 156 games in the big leagues. Chavez has always had plus stuff that has played both to the starting rotation and relief roles, but his command has been an issue of late. He had a few very bad outings out of the A's bullpen late last season, but went on to make some good starts in Sacramento to round out the season since being acquired off waivers from Toronto.
The hard-throwing 29-year-old could develop into an intriguing relief option should be find a way to harness his explosive stuff and locate toward the edges of the strike zone. He'll be given plenty of innings in the River Cats' rotation to work his control issues out. Chavez' ceiling is considerably higher given his fastball, which could move him up the ladder should he come out and throw well, but for now he finds himself behind Straily, Gray and Werner when it comes to starting pitchers.
Justin Thomas – a former fourth-round pick – has bounced around the major leagues as a reliever and now finds himself as a starter in the A's organization. Armed with an average fastball and quality slider, Thomas will look to refine his command of his pitches as he's stretched out and could find his way into a long-relief role with Oakland should his control improve.
Thomas has made 197 appearances over the last five seasons at the Triple-A level while making only seven starts. The lefty has been good enough to make the big leagues, so there's a good chance the A's saw an adjustment in his mechanics that could elevate him to the next level and make him a quality find. Otherwise, look for Thomas to jump between the rotation and bullpen depending on the changing figuration of the River Cats' roster throughout the season.
Former first-round pick Sonny Gray will be the team's fourth starter, not because of his talent level, but because of where his rotation spot falls in line with a potential promotion to Oakland. Gray didn't have a great 2012 after going straight to Midland after being drafted in 2011. But he found himself tinkering with his mechanics in order to refine his command.
Gray might not look the part given his height (he's generously listed at 5-foot-11). But he's armed with a mid-90s fastball and hammer of a curveball that has him projected as a potential top-3 starter in the major leagues. Gray said he's very comfortable with the mechanical adjustments he made last year and expects a lot out of himself this season.
The A's liked what they saw out of Gray in the spring, but not quite enough to jump him ahead of Dan Straily as the A's sixth starter (Straily will be the A's fifth starter through at least one round of the rotation because of Bartolo Colon's five-game suspension). But it's clear the A's brass is operating with the major leagues in mind for the right-hander as the early portion of 2013 could be his doorstep to a spot in the A's rotation.
A solid start to the season will go a long way toward determining when Gray will make his major league debut, but a good showing could vault him over Straily because of his more explosive stuff and better propensity to get ground balls. To be sure, Gray will have a keen on eye on Straily's first start with Oakland this year before Colon returns from suspension.
Bruce Billings will round out Sacramento's rotation and could be a forgotten man when discussing his future in the major leagues. The right-hander led the River Cats in the innings pitched last year and was a constant in season where starting pitchers were constantly shuffled between levels.
Billings land on the 40-man roster this off-season, but he has pitched in the major leagues for both the A's and the Rockies, although his numbers were not good in his combined seven innings. Billings might not be more than a placeholder, but his consistency and relative improvement over the last few seasons shouldn't go unnoticed, either.
The River Cats' Bullpen
Travis Banwart isn't in Sacramento's initial rotation, but he could very well get a number of starts again for the River Cats. The right-hander will be entering his fourth season at Triple-A and brings with him a 22-17 record with a 4.48 ERA in 75 appearances, 55 of which were starts. Nothing about Banwart's career says he's anything more than an average Triple-A pitcher that might have gotten a shot in the major leagues with a number of other organizations that haven't graduated as many young arms to the major leagues. He's slated to be a free-agent after the season should he not be added to the 40-man roster when the year concludes.
Right-hander Mike Ekstrom came to the A's as a minor league free agent in the offseason and wound up leading the team in innings pitched this spring, putting him the discussion for a role in the big league bullpen. Having made 51 major league relief appearances over the last five seasons with the Padres, Rays and Rockies, Ekstrom will likely be the first right-handed reliever called upon should the A's need one, although he is not on the club's 40-man roster to start the year.
The River Cats have gone with the closer by committee line of thinking the last few seasons and figure to continue that trend in 2013. Ekstrom will get some save opportunities along with Pedro Figueroa, Hideki Okajima and Jordan Norberto.
Norberto made 39 appearances with the A's last season but suffered from shoulder injuries that cut his season short. His numbers were mostly solid with the exception of his walk rate, but his 2.77 ERA and 37 hits allowed in 52 innings made him a key contributor to a solid bullpen. The 26-year-old has very good stuff but his injury-plagued season forced him behind Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle, but a start to 2013 could have him back in the majors sooner rather than later.
Figueroa is another talented lefty that didn't crack Oakland's opening day roster despite spending time with the A's last year. Figueroa had a solid spring – striking out 10 while walking just one – while coming into the year needing to improve his command. Figueroa might have the most explosive stuff of any left-hander in the organization, Brett Anderson included. But his problem has been with harnessing his hard, sinking fastball along with his off-speed offerings.
Last year was Figueroa's first healthy season since 2009, before he had Tommy John surgery. He combined to appear in 51 games between Sacramento and Oakland, but really struggled with his command with the A's. There, he walked more hitters than he struck out, but still managed just a 3.32 ERA signifying how difficult he can be to hit. If Figueroa is ever able to control the strike zone, he could become a serious weapon out of the A's bullpen at some point in the near future.
Brian Gordon, a 34-year-old reliever who spent last season pitching in Korea, has two starts with the Yankees in 2011 on his resume. Gordon is looking to get back into American baseball after starting his career as a hitter in the Diamondbacks' organization. The 15-year veteran has allowed a 788 OPS to hitters at the Triple-A level and will hope to improve upon those numbers in 2013. He hasn't played in America since 2011.
Nate Long will open the season with the River Cats despite never pitching at the Double-A level. In 2012, Long made 35 appearances with the High-A Stockton before making one appearance with Sacramento. With the Ports, Long allowed 121 hits in 89.1 innings but had decent strikeout and walk numbers.
Okajima came to the A's as a free agent after having pitched in Japan last year. With Boston, Okajima was once one of the better late-inning left-handers in the American League. But he's at least three years removed from that form. Known for his big overhand curveball, Okajima is a low-risk flier the A's were willing to take and there's an outside chance he could make the jump back to the big leagues at some point this season. But he would really have to stand out if he were going to get the nod over Norberto or Figueroa, who have pitched more recently in the majors.
Dan Otero joined Oakland's organization late in spring after being claimed off waivers from Yankees, who had claimed him from the Giants just a day prior. The former 21st-round pick has put up very strong numbers in his six minor league seasons, highlighted by a 6.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 275.1 innings. Otero split his 2011 season between Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Fresno. He went on to appear in 12 games last year in the majors with San Francisco, allowing 19 hits in 12.1 innings, but was able to maintain his quality strikeout-to-walk numbers.
Otero is an intriguing arm based on his ability to throw strikes and might have had even better numbers if not for a .333 BABIP last year with Fresno. If he's able to improve along the lines of other recent A's reliever additions, he could find himself on the major league roster at some point. He's currently on the A's 40-man roster.
James Simmons is the fifth former first-round pick of the A's that will open 2013 on Sacramento's roster. Since getting drafted in 2007, Simmons has had been plagued by injury and is still looking to regain the form that had him on the verge of his major league debut in 2009. Simmons injured his shoulder that year and attempted to pitch through the pain. He later found out that he had a frayed labrum and torn rotator cuff that forced him to miss the entire 2010 season.
When he returned to Stockton in 2011, his fastball wasn't the same, but he did manage to show he had good control. In 2012, Simmons' velocity was much improved and he had a solid season for Midland and Sacramento. Simmons had a good spring and pitched in five major league games, allowing 10 hits in five innings without yielding a walk. Simmons is still just 26 and has time on his side considering all that he's gone through. If he's able to maintain his control while avoiding bats, then he could find himself in the big leagues, which would be quite an accomplishment.