It's not often that a team can finish a season 14 games over the .500 mark and just two games out of first place and have that season be considered a disappointment. But such are the expectations for a Sacramento River Cats' team that has made the post-season 11 out of 14 seasons since 2000.
The River Cats don't have the benefit of playing in a particularly offense-friendly stadium the way that many teams do in the Pacific Coast League, but despite that handicap, the River Cats still finished fourth in the league in team OPS (776). They were fifth in homeruns, third in runs scored, first in walks and third in OBP. Sacramento was a station-to-station team in 2013, finishing dead-last in stolen bases. They were middle-of-the-pack in strike-outs.
Although several of the River Cats' top performers ended up in the major leagues or were traded, Sacramento boasted a balanced line-up for most of the year. Players such as Stephen Vogt, Grant Green, Michael Choice, Daric Barton, Jemile Weeks and Michael Taylor all had solid seasons at the plate while they were with the River Cats and all saw time in the big leagues.
Sacramento's pitching staff is usually among the best in the PCL, but it was a bit of a down year for the River Cats' pitchers. The River Cats finished eighth in a 16-team league in team ERA with a 4.29 mark. Some of that was bad luck. The River Cats were fourth in the league in strike-outs and first in fewest number of walks, and they were in the bottom half of the league in homeruns allowed. Sacramento also led the league in saves.
Right-hander Sonny Gray spent much of the second half of the season with the A's, but he was one of the PCL's top pitchers when he was in the minor leagues. Closers Brian Gordon and Danny Otero both finished in the top-10 in the league in saves.
River Cats Hitters
Note: Only hitters with at least 120 at-bats were considered for this article.
The River Cats' Opening Day roster featured all of the A's first-round picks from 2008-2011 and all but one of those were position players. Jemile Weeks ('08), Grant Green ('09) and Michael Choice ('10) all spent the majority of their seasons with the River Cats and all three were important contributors to the team's success.
Weeks led the team with 520 at-bats in 130 games played. A second baseman only for his entire professional career until this season, Weeks played more of a utility role in 2013. He played second base, shortstop, centerfield and DH for the River Cats, showing versatility that may help him find a permanent job in the big leagues next season. Weeks didn't show a lot of power with Sacramento, but he did his job getting on-base, reaching at a .376 clip. He walked 80 times and stole 17 bases in 19 attempts. He also led the team with 10 triples. He spent all of September on the A's roster, but he only received nine at-bats.
The River Cats' regular second baseman for the first half of the season was Green. The former shortstop spent last year playing in the outfield before making the switch to second base late in the year. Green made positive progress with the glove at second during the season, although he still has work to do on his defense. Green had a big year at the plate, posting an 879 OPS in 87 games with the River Cats. He was promoted to Oakland just before the All-Star break, but he was sent back to Sacramento after a hitless one-week stint that featured a couple of defensive miscues. The A's traded Green in July for veteran Alberto Callaspo of the Angels. Green got plenty of major league playing time with the Angels in September and he acquitted himself well. If the Angels trade Howie Kendrick this off-season, Green will be the front-runner for their second base job.
Choice was one of the finalists for the league's MVP award after he posted a .302/.390/.445 line in his first season in the PCL. After a broken hand shortened his 2012 season by seven weeks, Choice enjoyed an injury-free year and he played in a career-high 132 games. Choice didn't hit as many homeruns as one would expect (14), but he still showed plenty of gap power to all fields and he improved his K:BB ratio significantly over his 2011 and 2012 numbers. He was a much more complete hitter in 2013 than he had been previously in his career. Choice hit the ball hard in limited big league appearances in September and played well defensively. If the A's let Chris Young and/or Seth Smith go this off-season, Choice figures to be the leading candidate to take their place in Oakland.
Catcher isn't usually a position that produces a lot of offense, but the River Cats received plenty of offense early in the season from their backstops. Stephen Vogt and Luke Montz shared the majority of the playing time behind the plate for the first 115 games of the season. Vogt spent most of the second half with Oakland, while Montz suffered a back injury that ended his season in late June.
Vogt hit .438 with a 1282 OPS in April, and he never really looked back. After a small slump in May, Vogt posted OPSs of 833 and 983 in June and July, respectively, before getting the call to Oakland for good in late July. Montz spent some time in Oakland early in the season, and he hit nine homers and walked 19 times in 122 at-bats with the River Cats.
Since 2006, Daric Barton has spent parts of every season with the River Cats, with the exception of his 2010 season. Off of the A's 40-man roster to start the year, Barton did get a cup of coffee with the A's in late April when Josh Reddick landed on the DL. However, Barton struggled during that stint and it looked like that might be the last chance he would get with the A's. Barton didn't complain and he put together a strong season for Sacramento. He posted an 853 OPS and a .423 OBP. Barton walked 87 times against only 57 strike-outs in 391 at-bats. Barton got another chance in late August when Reddick landed on the DL again, and this time he grabbed hold of the opportunity. He was one of the A's top contributors in September and he played his way onto the post-season roster. It had been a foregone conclusion that Barton would be let go this off-season, but now that is less clear. He is out of major league options.
Outfielder Michael Taylor has also been a regular presence in Sacramento over the past few years. Taylor completed his fourth season with the River Cats, and he once again put together a solid season. In 2013, Taylor posted an 833 OPS and he hit 18 homeruns, the most in any season since he came to the A's organization. Taylor showed good bat control, as well, striking out only 88 times in 420 at-bats. He received a short stint in the majors early in the year, but he collected only one hit in 23 at-bats. Taylor will be out of options next spring, and the A's may look to deal him if they don't think they'll have a spot for him on their roster next year.
The versatile Shane Peterson came into the 2013 season with some momentum after a breakthrough 2012 campaign landed him on the A's 40-man roster and a strong major league spring training put him squarely on the radar of the A's coaching staff. Peterson got off to a good start and he even picked up his first major league hit during a two-game stint in the big leagues. However, he struggled for much of the middle part of the season, perhaps pressing to try to get back to the big leagues. Peterson finished the year with a .251/.358/.387 line. He really found his groove late in the year, posting an 898 OPS in August. He also hit a career-high 12 homeruns and he drove-in a career-best 79 runs.
Corner infielder Scott Moore was a big contributor for the River Cats early in the season, but when it became clear that he wasn't going to get the call up to the big leagues by the A's, he was granted his release from the organization. He signed with San Diego and finished the year in Triple-A with the Padres. Before leaving the River Cats, Moore posted an 839 OPS with 11 homers and 26 doubles in 81 games.
During the off-season, the A's signed shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima with the intention of making the Japanese League All-Star their starting shortstop. Nakajima struggled with the transition to US baseball during spring training and then finished camp with a strained hamstring that kept him on the shelf for the first month of the season. While he was hurt, the A's middle infield situation solidified and there was no place for him in Oakland during the season. Nakajima played short, second and third base for the River Cats. He hit for average (.283), but he didn't hit for much power and had a 698 OPS. He is no longer on the A's 40-man roster, but he is signed through next season.
Infielder Andy Parrino didn't produce much at the plate (.210/.300/.302 in 367 at-bats). However, he was spectacular in the field, mostly at shortstop. That fielding prowess earned him a September call-up despite his struggles with the bat. He had an 864 OPS in Triple-A last season, so Parrino could be in for a rebound with the bat next year.
First baseman Anthony Aliotti had an MVP-caliber season with Double-A Midland, leading the Texas League in several offensive categories. He posted a 993 OPS for the RockHounds before earning a promotion to Sacramento for the final six weeks of the season. It took a little while for Aliotti to adjust to the PCL. He finished with a .266/.329/.344 line in 154 at-bats. He had an 813 OPS and hit .324 over his last 10 games. Aliotti hit .294/.356/.378 against right-handers, but only .171/.237/.229 versus lefties while with Sacramento.
River Cats Pitchers
Note: Only pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched were considered for this article.
For much of the season, the Sacramento staff was led by PCL rookie Sonny Gray. In just his second full professional season, Gray zipped through the offense-friendly league, earning a spot as the PCL's starting pitcher in the Triple-A All-Star game. Before the break, he had a 2.99 ERA with a 107:36 in 102.1 innings and only four homers allowed. Gray didn't get a chance to start in that All-Star game because the A's promoted him to the big leagues. Gray would return to the River Cats for a brief three-start stint in late July, but he spent most of August and all of September with the A's. Gray finished his Triple-A season with a 3.42 ERA and a 118:39 K:BB in 118.1 innings.
After Gray, right-hander Bruce Billings was the River Cats' ace. Although he finished the year with a 4.31 ERA in 148.1 innings, Billings actually pitched much better than that ERA would suggest. He struggled badly in April, posting a 9.88 ERA, and he had to fight the rest of the season to get out from under that disastrous month. Billings struck-out a team-high 135 batters and his 1.29 WHIP was lowest among the River Cats' regular starters.
During the off-season, the A's acquired Andrew Werner with the idea that he might fit into the back-end of their rotation or as a longman in their major-league bullpen. That never materialized in 2013, as Werner struggled in his first season in the A's organization. In a team-high 165 innings, Werner had an ugly 5.78 ERA. He walked only 38, but he struck-out only 111 and batters hit .305 against him. Werner also struggled with the longball, allowing 20 homers. He fought his mechanics, especially early in the season. Werner did pitch better during the final month of the season and, having now spent a full year in the A's organization, he may be in a better position to pitch at his best next season.
Since midway through the 2010 season, the River Cats have had a trusty right-handed arm in the Sacramento rotation in Travis Banwart. He once again put together a solid season with the River Cats. His ERA was 4.50, but he had 125 strike-outs in 131 innings. Banwart did struggle with location at times, and he walked 54 and allowed 20 homeruns. Banwart is eligible for minor league free agency this off-season.
Left-hander Justin Thomas and right-hander Arnold Leon made the majority of the remainder of the starts for the River Cats. Thomas was signed to a minor league free agent contract over the off-season. He made 16 starts for Sacramento, posting a 4.48 ERA in 84.1 innings. Thomas struck-out 68 and walked 34. Although Raley Field is generally more friendly to pitchers, Thomas struggled at home (5.54 ERA) and pitched well on the road (3.64 ERA). He was granted his release in late June so he could sign with a Japanese League team and he finished his season in Japan.
Thomas' departure left an opening for Leon in the River Cats' rotation. Leon spent last season – which was his first full year back from Tommy John surgery – as a reliever, but the A's moved him back into the starting rotation in 2013. He spent the first half of the season with the RockHounds, but he joined Sacramento in mid-July. Leon threw 71.1 innings for Sacramento and he had a 4.42 ERA and a 49:13 K:BB. Leon allowed just four homeruns. For the entire season, Leon threw 144 innings and he walked just 24. Leon's major league future is likely in the bullpen, but with 144 innings under his belt, he will be able to handle any role next season. Leon is on the A's 40-man roster.
Two pitchers who would factor heavily in the A's 2013 season each spent time in the River Cats' rotation: right-handers Dan Straily and Jesse Chavez. Each pitcher made exactly five starts and both dominated at the Triple-A level. Straily had a 1.14 ERA and a 33:9 K:BB in 31.2 innings for the River Cats, while Chavez had a 2.70 ERA and a 26:5 K:BB in 30 innings for Sacramento.
The River Cats' bullpen had a veteran feel to it in 2013, and it was led for much of the year by 35-year-old Brian Gordon. Gordon appeared in a team-high 51 games and he led the team with 23 saves. The former outfielder-turned-pitcher showed remarkable command, walking only nine in 63 innings. He struck-out 66. Gordon will be a minor league free agent again this off-season. If he intends to continue his professional career, Gordon should have plenty of suitors.
Left-hander Pedro Figueroa was second on the team in innings pitched by a reliever. Figueroa had a break-through season in 2012, and he made his major league debut that year. In 2013, Figueroa never had his best command. He walked 33 in 59.1 innings and he allowed an uncharacteristic nine homeruns. He struck-out 49. Figueroa did receive a September call-up, but he struggled in five appearances with the A's. His stuff is too good to give up on, and Figueroa will receive a long look by the A's in spring training next season.
Early in the season, Mike Ekstrom was a workhorse for the River Cats. Pitching for Sacramento during the first two-and-a-half months of the season, he made 21 appearances. In 30 innings, he posted a 5.10 ERA with a 27:13 K:BB. Ekstrom was granted his release by the A's mid-season and he joined the Angels' organization. He was released by the Angels in early August after posting a 5.19 ERA in 26 innings.
A trio of veterans with major league experience gave the River Cats a lot of innings out of the bullpen. Evan Scribner (44.2 innings), Hideki Okajima (42.2 innings) and Chris Resop (35.2 innings) all spent time with the A's this season but all three were with Sacramento for the majority of the year. Scribner was spectacular for the River Cats, posting a 2.22 ERA with a 58:9 K:BB. He allowed just two homeruns. Scribner will compete for a spot in the A's bullpen again next spring.
Okajima signed a minor league free agent contract with the A's at the start of spring training. He pitched well out of the gate for the River Cats and earned a promotion to the A's in May. However, he struggled with his command five appearances, allowing seven hits and two walks in four innings pitched. He pitched well for most of the season with the River Cats. His ERA was an inflated 4.22, but that was, in part, because he allowed five runs in one inning in his last outing of the season and three runs in a third of an inning on August 10th. He struck-out 45 and walked nine, and he held lefties to a .182 average. Okajima was removed from the 40-man roster late in the season and he will likely look for another opportunity to make the major leagues in 2014.
Chris Resop was acquired by the A's during the off-season from the Pittsburgh Pirates and the A's had hoped he would fill a sixth- or seventh-inning role for Oakland this season. Instead, he struggled with his command and was outrighted to Sacramento after walking 10 in 18 innings with the A's. He struggled the entire season with the River Cats, posting a 6.81 ERA and a 29:13 K:BB. He allowed five homeruns.
After spending two full seasons with Midland, Paul Smyth was forced to repeat at the Double-A level at the start of the 2013 season. He struck out 24 and walked only four in 23 innings with the RockHounds to start the year and finally got his opportunity at Triple-A. Smyth spent the rest of the season with the River Cats, posting a 2.45 ERA in 36 innings. Smyth's command wasn't great with Sacramento (16 walks), but the side-armer dominated right-handed hitters (.197 BAA). Smyth will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter if he isn't protected by the A's this off-season.
Right-hander Darren Byrd also began the 2013 season with Midland, but he got the call to Sacramento after only three appearances with the RockHounds. The veteran minor leaguer, acquired during spring training for infielder Stephen Parker, had a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 innings with Sacramento. He struck-out more than a batter an inning (35 K's on the year), but he walked 22. Byrd spent the final few weeks of the season on the Stockton roster.