Year after year it seems the Sacramento River Cats are either littered with top prospects or veterans with previous experience playing at Raley Field. But in 2014, it will be difficult to find recognizable faces - at least initially.
For the first time since 2010, Michael Taylor will not be donning a River Cats' uniform after the A's designated him for assignment following a very good spring training. Former top prospects Jemile Weeks, Michael Choice and Grant Green have all been traded to American League rivals. Sonny Gray has quickly become the A's ace after his outstanding showing during the postseason last year and Jarrod Parker's "Tommy John" surgery.
So while it's customary to see a volume prospects on the cusp of their major league debuts in Sacramento, those young players are at the lower levels of the organization. Top shortstop prospect Addison Russell, 20, will be starting the season with Double-A Midland. The same goes for speedy outfielder Billy Burns and starting pitcher Raul Alcantara.
Coming off two-straight division titles, it's clear the A's have a "win-now" mindset by using some of their former top minor leaguers as trade bait to help the major league roster. Trading Green to the Angels brought Alberto Callaspo and moving Choice to the Rangers brought back another key bench piece in Craig Gentry. Weeks was traded to Baltimore for the team's new closer Jim Johnson.
So what is there to look for in Sacramento this season aside from the eventual additions of Russell, Burns and Alcantara? Oddly enough, the answer is former A's - and some key players at that.
At least at the start of the year, the 2014 River Cats will consistent of a mixture between older prospects and former A's that were on the wrong side of the numbers game when spring training broke. Stephen Vogt, a cog in last season's catching rotation is back with Sacramento hoping to replicate 2013's success at the plate in the Pacific Coast League before getting the call up.
Another key player in Oakland's playoff run, Nate Freiman, will get regular at-bats after platooning at first base in the big leagues last year. Then there's Joe Blanton, who returns to the organization after spending the last six seasons bouncing from the Phillies, Dodgers and Angels.
The good news for the A's is that they can dip into Sacramento to grab some players with major league experience they can trust, which they couldn't say the last couple of seasons with players like Green, Taylor and Choice. Those players were everyday-type guys that struggled in limited roles once they got to the big leagues. When Oakland calls on Vogt and/or Freiman, they won't have to worry about their mindset going in after what they were able to accomplish in 2013.
Former big leaguer Steve Scarsone is entering his second season as the team's skipper. Rick Rodriguez returns as the River Cats' pitching coach and Greg Sparks will be the team's hitting coach once again.
After a disappointing start to his American baseball career, Hiroyuki Nakajima returns to Sacramento with a new sense of confidence after coming over from Japan last season. The former shortstop spent most of his time at third base during the second half of 2013. With Josh Donaldon, Callaspo and Nick Punto all in the big leagues, it appears a long shot for Nakajima to make it to Oakland this season, but should he regain the approach at the plate that earned him a two-year $6.5 million contact in December of 2012, he could force the A's hand earning either a promotion or trade to a team looking for depth in the infield.
Nakajima came around at the plate with the River Cats after struggling early, finishing the season with a .283/.331/.367 slash line. His average and on-base percentage were on par with what the A's are looking for, but amassing just 21 extra-base hits (17 doubles, four homers) in 384 plate appearances leaves plenty to be desired, especially if he's going to be playing third base going forward. He will also see time at second base and shortstop.
Alden Carrithers will share time with Nakajima at third after coming over from the Braves organization as a minor league free agent. Carrithers has great plate discipline with a career .297/.403/.366 slash line and has defensive versatility - he can also play second base and corner outfield. To this point he has walked more than he has struck out during his six-year pro career after attending UCLA.
Jake Elmore joins the team after spending last year bouncing between Houston and Triple-A Oklahoma City. He played in 52 games for the Astros, hitting .242/.313/.325 with a pair of home runs. He found a way to play all nine positions for Houston (really) and figures to get the most of his time at shortstop for Sacramento. Elmore could be the first infielder called up by the A's should they need an extra glove given the 26-year-old's major league experience.
Oddly enough, Freiman will be making his Triple-A debut this April after jumping straight to Oakland from Double-A when the A's picked him up prior to last season. The A's had to keep the lanky first baseman on their big league roster or risk losing him on waivers. He wound-up spending the entire season on the A's roster, allowing him to stick with the organization going forward.
In 208 plate appearances, Freiman hit .274/.327/.389 while platooning at first base with 162 of those coming against left-handed pitching. The A's would like to get Freiman more experience against righties and see if he can regain his power stroke from the previous two seasons when he combined to hit 46 home runs in the Padres' organization.
Jose Martinez will get time at second base. Martinez has had a long and tumultuous minor league career. He spent the majority of his 2013 season with Triple-A Oklahoma City where he hit .282/.316/.410. He's a strong contact hitter that possesses good bat control.
First baseman Anthony Aliotti will share the position with Freiman after his outstanding season with Double-A Midland in 2013. The left-handed hitter went .350/.452/.541 in 91 Texas League games before getting called up to Sacramento in July. Rated as OaklandClubhouse's No. 25 prospect, Aliotti is one of the few home-grown prospects with the River Cats that has a chance to crack the major league roster down the road.
Aliotti's power numbers and defense have improved over the years while he's been stuck behind Daric Barton on the organizational depth chart. His numbers took a predictable hit after his promotion in the summer, but a big year in Sacramento could lead to a spot on the 40-man roster for Aliotti in the coming offseason.
Shane Peterson returns to Sacramento after a somewhat disappointing 2013 season. After getting promoted from Midland to the River Cats midway through 2012, Peterson tore up the PCL, hitting .389/.484/.618 in the small sample of 39 games. With that success in mind, Peterson was unable to replicate those numbers last year, hitting .251/.358/.387 in 126 games for Sacramento. He also made his major league debut in April for the A's, but was unable to find his way back.
Peterson is a selective hitter with gap-to-gap power, but it's unclear if he has the power potential to get back to the majors. He can play center field in the minors, but he is likely limited to playing left field or first base at the next level. Peterson is on the A's 40-man roster, so he will be a top option if one of the outfielders is injured.
The A's acquired right-handed hitter Kent Matthes on waivers from the Colorado Rockies during spring training. The former fourth-round draft pick in 2009 has spent his entire pro career in the Rockies organization and is coming off a nice season with Triple-A Colorado Springs when he hit .297/.333/.531 with 11 homers after getting promoted June 22. Matthes earned MVP honors for his play in the California League with the Modesto Nuts in 2011. With Michael Taylor likely gone, Matthes will take over a similar role in Sacramento's outfield.
Jake Goebbert is another left-handed hitter than could play both in the outfield and at first base. He was acquired last spring in a trade that sent left-hander Travis Blackley to the Houston Astros. Goebbert started his A's career with Double-A Midland, where he managed an 831 OPS thanks to 18 homers and 20 doubles. He went on to have a cup of coffee with Sacramento, and he managed an 808 OPS in 21 games (85 plate appearances). Goebbert, like Peterson, is another left-handed hitter that's shown a propensity to get on-base. The 26-year-old is on a good trajectory and could surpass Peterson on the organizational depth chart with a good first full season at the Triple-A level.
Conner Crumbliss made a name for himself in the A's organization by walking more times than striking out in each of his first three seasons at advanced levels. He took a step back last year after starting the season with Triple-A Sacramento and finding himself demoted to Midland in mid-May. In his last 10 games with the River Cats, he collected just one hit in 31 plate appearances before being sent down for the remainder of the season. From then on, Crumbliss hit more like one would expect, as he posted a .280/.405/.432 line in 92 games for the RockHounds. Crumbliss is a deceptive base runner that stole 24 bases each year from 2010 to 2012.
Stephen Vogt made his A's debut in 2013, appearing in 47 games. He made a good impression on the organization by playing beyond his experience and becoming one of the team's most likable players. Vogt's first big-league hit was a home run. He finished the year slashing .252/.295/.400 with four home runs and 16 RBI. Vogt was arguably the River Cats' best player prior to his arrival in Oakland, hitting .324/.398/.547 in 75 games.
Vogt would have returned to the A's when spring training broke, but John Jaso's return paired with the need for pitchers prevented the team from carrying three catchers. Vogt will be a regular in the middle of Scarsone's lineup and one of the first position players the A's will call if/when one of the major leaguers suffers an injury.
After bouncing between High-A Stockton and Sacramento last year, Ryan Ortiz will be the team's No. 2 catcher after showing improvement in 2013. Ortiz is one of the organization's most well-traveled prospects. He has played at multiple levels each year since 2010. He hit .270/.336/.426 in 36 games with the River Cats last season.
Sacramento's Opening Night starter will be right-hander Arnold Leon, who played for both Double-A Midland and the River Cats last season. Combined he finished with a 4.12 ERA, allowing 168 hits in 144 innings. He was promoted to Sacramento midway through the season and made 12 starts, lasting at least five innings in each.
Leon had a very good spring for the A's, throwing 12.2 innings and allowing just three runs on six hits. If Leon has a good season, he could be an important depth piece for the A's major league rotation. He could also fill in a bullpen role if the team is looking for a right-hander.
Sean Murphy stands 6'6'' and will be the team's No. 2 starter at the beginning of the season. Murphy has been on a good track dating back to the start of 2013 when he began the year with the Stockton Ports. He was quickly promoted to Midland and became one of the team's most reliable starters, making 25 appearances, throwing 136.2 innings allowing a 4.08 ERA and 121:50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Murphy is liked by the organization for his ability to throw four different pitches for strikes - which has allowed for his steady climb up the ranks over the last 12 months.
Coming back to Oakland for the first time since 2008 is Joe Blanton, who has slimmed down some 45 pounds since last donning the green and gold. Blanton was a late release by the Angels after posting a career-worst 6.04 ERA in 2013. With the A's keeping top pitching prospect Drew Pomeranz in the bullpen to start the season, the team needed a veteran insurance policy just in case. Blanton is that player and will be Sacramento's third starter to begin the year.
The A's acquired Matt Buschmann from the Padres as a minor league free agent in the offseason. At 30, he's entering his ninth professional season and is still looking to make his major league debut. He had one of his best seasons in 2013 pitching in San Diego's organization at Double-A and Triple-A, combing to post a 2.86 ERA in 29 appearances. Armed with a heavy sinking fastball, Buschmann's command has improved dramatically over the years. The right-hander also throws a slider and change up.
Rounding out the rotation will be Josh Linblom, who made his A's debut Wednesday night when he the big-league team needed an extra starter for the back-end of a double-header. Lindblom went 4.2 innings against the Indians, allowing two runs on five hits. The right-hander came to the organization in the same trade that sent Choice and Chris Bostick to the Rangers for Gentry.
Lindblom has 109 games of major league experience and will continue to be the most likely candidate to supplement the major league roster when needed. He has spent most of his major league career as a reliever but will continue to start for the River Cats going forward.
Well-traveled lefty reliever Eric Berger will have a prominent role in Scarsone's bullpen after being acquired from the Astros late in spring training. Berger spent most of 2013 with Triple-A Oklahoma City and made 44 appearances, allowing a solid 7.5 hits per nine innings. His fastball hovers between 88 and 92 with natural sink. He walks his fair share of hitters, but if he can improve his control he could be an intriguing arm to watch going forward. His mustache will likely make him a fan favorite from the jump.
Acquired as a minor league free agent from Cleveland over the winter, Jose Flores has an unusual throwing motion where he nearly turns his back entirely to the hitter offering deception to his repertoire. Still just 24, Flores continues to improve his command and off-speed offerings as time goes on. He's managed a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2.00 each season dating back to 2008, when he was just 20 playing in the Arizona Rookie League. Last year Flores spent the season with Double-A Akron amassing an impressive 2.71 ERA in 59 appearances.
Deryk Hooker yet another minor league free agent added to Sacramento's bullpen this offseason. He spent the first six years of his pro career in the Cardinals' organization and turns just 25 in June. His issue has been health, although most of his injuries haven't been to his throwing arm. Hooker struggled with Triple-A Memphis in 2013, with a 5.23 ERA and 1.355 WHIP in 15 games.
If Philip Humber's name sounds familiar, it should. He threw a perfect game for the White Sox against the Mariners in 2012. Things haven't been great for the right-hander since then. He finished that season with a 6.44 ERA before moving on to the Astros and posting a 7.90 clip last year. Humber has done some starting and relieving over the last few seasons, but comes to the A's as a reliever, for now.
Another minor league free-agent acquisition, right-hander Jeremy McBryde has a power fastball to pair with a heavy sinking two-seamer. The 26-year-old dealt with injuries early in his career but has been on a nice trajectory over the last two seasons. With Double-A San Antonio last year, McBryde registered a 2.35 ERA in 61 games. He notched an outstanding 4.87 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.913 WHIP. If he can continue that pace this season with the River Cats, McBryde could become a valuable addition to the organization down the road.
Fernando Nieve has 99 games of experience in the big leagues pitching for Houston and the New York Mets. Nieve was acquired midway through the season from Cleveland for cash considerations. Nieve, 31, will be the veteran reliever of the group. He appeared in seven games late last year for Sacramento, posting a 2.19 ERA and 0.892 WHIP.
Fernando Rodriguez will be back with the A's for a second season after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery a year ago. He's still listed on the disabled list, but is slated to be eligible to return to action by April 5. Rodriguez has big arm, evident by his 10 strikeouts per nine innings average in the big leagues. He's made 119 appearances with the Angels and Astros in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The A's will take things slowly with Rodriguez as he rounds back into form, but he could become a valuable reliever to have as depth as the season wears on. He joined the organization with Jed Lowrie in the trade with Houston in February of 2013.
Left-hander Joe Savery is a former first-round pick on the Phillies that they claimed off waivers back in February. He had a good spring for the A's, allowing two earned runs in eight appearances. He had trouble with control, however, walking seven batters in 8.2 innings - but he also struck out 12. Savery lost out on a major league job to Fernando Abad. With some polish in Sacramento, Savery could find himself in the A's bullpen at some point this year should they need an extra left-hander down the road.
Right-hander Paul Smyth is one of the few pitchers in Sacarmento's bullpen drafted by Oakland as he was taken in the 35th round in 2009. It's been a slow climb for Smyth, but he made it to Sacramento last year and took advantage of his opportunity. He had a 2.45 ERA in 32 appearances and is looking to take the next step in 2014. Smyth struggled with control while in Sacramento last year after coming up midseason, walking nearly four hitters per nine innings.