Since the last Sacramento Notebook, the River Cats have gone 16-12 and maintained their lead in the PCL's Pacific Southern Division by four games. The clubs offense has paced the league with a .364 on-base percentage leading to the second-most runs scored.
The team's 4.01 team ERA is good for fifth behind a starting staff that's rounded into shape after a rough start to the year.
But the real story in Sacramento is the number of players playing new positions. On a nightly basis there has been a variation of players at different spots all over the field, leaving Steve Scarsone the tough job of finding enough at-bats to go around.
"I think the hardest thing is to have to see a guy not play. There are nine spots and I have 12 position players that all deserve and need that playing time. I wish I could hit 12 every night," Scarsone said.
The River Cats have four infielders on the 40-man roster that all figure into the A's plan should a sudden injury force a promotion. But at the same time, there are still young players that need time to develop creating a conflict.
Grant Green is the classic case. Since spring he has been in the fold at second base, which ended up pushing Jemile Weeks over to shortstop. But it's Andy Parrino that will likely get the call should a middle infielder go down for Oakland.
Add Hiro Nakajima to the mix, and you suddenly have four players vying for at-bats at two positions, while the designated hitter is usually used for an outfielder or second catcher.
"My goal is not to have anybody sit more than one, or two days at the most," Scarsone said.
"I think I try to stay in good communication with them so the players know that it's not necessarily, ‘hey, you aren't good enough to be in the lineup today.'"
Since coming back from his hamstring injury, Nakajima has actually gotten more starts at third base (14) than shortstop (13), while making a pair of appearances at second base. Bob Melvin has found a way to work with Jed Lowrie, Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard in Oakland, leading to the stockpile of middle infielders with Triple-A Sacramento.
Nakajima struggled at the plate when he first returned from the injury to hit .312 in May, but has reverted to hitting .227/.358/.295 so far in June, with just one of his 10 hits being for extra bases. He homered June 2.
After struggling with the transition to second early in the season, Green has grown increasingly comfortable defensively at second base. The USC alum has also made one start at first.
"He's becoming more comfortable with some of those reactionary plays," Scarsone said. "He's made what I think are huge strides in his every-day play…. It's just a matter of him continuing to experience all the things that happen in the course of the game. He has the natural talent, he just gain some more experience over there. He's been very good."
But Green and Weeks aren't the only former first-round picks that have been dealing with the unfamiliarity of a new position. From May 16 through June 10, Michael Choice played either right or left field in order to increase his versatility and value to the major league team in case of injury.
"It's important to know how to play out there because you never know what can happen and it would be better to learn it down here than to get thrown in the fire up there," Choice said.
Choice made 15 starts in left and nine in right while going through the typical struggles with new angles and routes. But Scarsone praised the A's top outfield prospect for both his ability to handle the adjustments and attitude toward making the transition.
Offensively, Choice has been one of the team's most consistent performers. He leads the team with 10 homers 49 RBIs while manning the cleanup spot in all 65 of his starts. And he's been one of Sacramento's few hitters to maintain a high level of consistency throughout the whole season.
Scarsone managed Choice in Double-A Midland last year and has seen his evolution from one level to the next first hand. He noticed a drastic improvement in his approach and ability to force the pitcher to throw the pitch he's looking for, rather than letting the pitcher control the at-bat. It's what Choice has worked on the most during his first stint at Triple-A.
"(It's) Just kind of a give or take-type deal, where I'm not trying to hit his best pitch, I'm trying to hit my pitch," Choice said.
Comings and Goings
The Athletics have made a number of moves dealing with the River Cats involving bullpen arms. Right-hander Pedro Vidal was sent to Single-A Stockton after making just three appearances with Sacramento. Chris Resop joined the team after being outrighted by Oakland May 24.
Dan Otero left to join the A's after going a perfect 15-for-15 in save opportunities. Since his promotion, he's allowed one earned run over three appearances. Hideki Okajima rejoined the River Cats in his place after throwing in five games for the A's where he had a 2.25 ERA and bloated 2.23 WHIP.
Mike Ekstrom was released by Oakland after not getting promoted to the majors before a certain date in June. He signed with the Angels and was assigned to Triple-A Salt Lake. Kyler Newby was promoted from Double-A Midland to take the open spot in the bullpen. Newby was 4-4 with six saves, a 1.95 ERA and .237 average against in 32.1 innings with the RockHounds.
Daric Barton cleared waivers back on May 23 and was outrighted by the A's after being unable to stick in the majors. Nakajima's status as a rehabbing MLB player changed to a permanent member of the River Cats' roster the same day. He remains on Oakland's 40-man roster.
Josh Reddick appeared in three games for Sacramento while rehabbing his ailing right wrist. He went 2-for-11 with three walks and a pair of stolen bases before getting the call back to Oakland. Reddick has hit .309/.367/.491 with two home runs in 14 games since returning from the disabled list.
Luke Montz returned to Sacramento June 1 after being used by the A's in a very sparing capacity. He registered five hits in 30 plate appearances.
Led by Sonny Gray, the River Cats' starting pitching staff has thrown very well of late. Gray's 2.62 ERA is good for second in the PCL among starters.
Gray admitted his confidence level now is miles ahead of where it was at the start of the season. The organization's prized right-hander spent the majority of 2012 with Double-A Midland constantly tinkering to find consistency. Those days are over and he's become comfortable this year under Sacramento's pitching coach Rick Rodriguez.
"I feel like I'm where I need to be when it comes all my pitches and mechanics," Gray said.
Scarsone noted all the team's starting pitchers are feeding off one another. And with turning into the staff's de facto ace, it can help his development immensely.
"Any time that a player steps up in his confidence and takes a little bit more of leadership role, whether it be outwardly or just the way he goes about his business, it's going to benefit because the next level is all about leadership," Scarsone said. "If you're not out there doing everything you can to win and you're just up there to survive, you won't. You've got to be assertive and take charge."
"I think they've kind of fed off each other," Scarsone said. "It made us realize how fortunate we've been and how good they've been to consistently go out and get us into the fifth, sixth and even the seventh."
Montz had a three game-stretch from June 4-7 in Tucson where he combined for seven hits (two homers) and 12 RBIs. But since then, he's gone two for his last 17, dropping his overall totals to .291/.394/.674. He's played in just 24 games for Sacramento after being in the majors for the whole month of May.