Roster Preview: Sacramento River Cats

<I>This is the third article in our series examining the Opening Day rosters of the Oakland A's minor league affiliates.</I><br> The 2005 season for the Sacramento River Cats figures to be a momentous one. The River Cats begin the season as the two-time defending PCL champion and as the hosts of the 2005 AAA All-Star Game. With a talented and veteran squad, Sacramento figures to have a good shot at completing the three-peat and having a good representation of players at the All-Star Game.

The Sacramento River Cats Roster

Starting Pitching

The Sacramento starting rotation will be led by a pair of lefties and a right-hander who narrowly lost out for the A's fifth starter spot this spring. The lefties are Dan Meyer and John Rheinecker. Meyer takes the mantle from A's rookie Joe Blanton as the much ballyhooed prospect in the Sacramento rotation this season. Like Blanton in 2004, Meyer's outings will be monitored with great interest by the A's and their fans.

The young lefty was acquired from the Atlanta organization as part of the Tim Hudson trade. He had an opportunity to win a spot in the A's rotation this spring, but ran into control problems and admitted to a few jitters. Although the A's coaching staff was encouraged by Meyer's stuff, they wanted him to spend more time in AAA to get seasoning before becoming a full-time member of the A's rotation. This will be Meyer's first Opening Day on a AAA roster, as he didn't make it to AAA until two months into 2004.

Meyer will be joined at the top of the rotation by John Rheinecker. Rheinecker will be spending his third season with the River Cats. Once one of the A's most promising young pitching prospects, Rheinecker has run into control problems over the past two seasons, which have caused his prospect status to dim. However, he had a nice spring training at big league camp and he should be a solid innings-eater for the River Cats.

Seth Etherton will also be a key component in the Sacramento rotation. The former first round draft pick is now four years removed from serious reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder. Etherton had a strong season split between AA and AAA for the Cincinnati organization in 2004 and was one of the strongest candidates for the A's fifth starter spot this spring. Etherton, who has spent parts of two seasons in the big leagues, will bring veteran leadership to the Sacramento pitching staff. He could be a candidate to join the A's rotation early in the season if any of the A's pitchers go down with an injury.

Long-time A's farmhand Mario Ramos, minor league free agent pick up Jim Serrano, and ex-Cub Steve Smyth will be in the mix for the final two rotation spots. All three have major league experience and all three can pitch out of the bullpen or in the rotation, giving the Sacramento pitching staff some flexibility. Both Ramos and Smyth are lefties.

Relief Pitching

Like the starting rotation, the River Cats bullpen will have a veteran feel to it. It will be anchored by closer Chris Mabeus, who filled a late-inning role for the River Cats in 2004 after a mid-season promotion from AA-Midland. Mabeus had an outside chance to win a bullpen spot with the A's this spring, but got roughed up in two early camp appearances. He has a strong minor league track record of success, however, and he should be a solid presence at the back of the River Cats bullpen.

The middle relief slots will be filled by major league veterans Britt Reames and Tim Harikkala, as well as Marcus Gwyn, Ron Flores and Billy Sylvester. Reames, the former Cardinal and Expo, filled a middle relief role for Sacramento last season. Harikkala spent most of last season in the Colorado Rockies bullpen and was one of the Rockies' best relievers for much of the season. He could be a candidate to be recalled if one of the A's middle relievers gets injured.

Midland's 2004 closer, Marcus Gwyn, will also be in the Sacramento bullpen. He saved 13 games for the Rockhounds in 2004 and posted a 2.94 ERA before being promoted to Sacramento late in the season. The left-handed specialist role will be filled by Ron Flores, who was a PCL All-Star last season for the River Cats. Flores had a 3.83 ERA in 54 innings (over 55 appearances) in 2004. The final bullpen spot will be filled by Billy Sylvester, who comes over to the A's organization from the Texas farm system. Sylvester was a long-time Braves farmhand and is the all-time saves leader for their AA-Greenville farm club.

Infielders and Catchers

Reigning PCL Most Valuable Player Dan Johnson highlights the River Cats infield. Johnson did everything humanly possible to make the A's 25-man roster this spring. Coming off of a strong Mexican Winter League season, Johnson had an outstanding run in the A's big league camp, hitting .395 with three homeruns and only one strike out. He also demonstrated a much improved defensive game around the first base bag. Johnson will almost assuredly see some time in Oakland this season if he stays healthy. In the meantime, he'll be the big bat in the middle of the River Cats line-up.

The middle infield will be manned by Adam Morrissey and Mike Rouse, both of whom spent significant time turning double-plays for the River Cats last season. Rouse hit a career-high 10 homeruns in only 99 games last season for Sacramento. He is a solid defensive player who could see time at second, short and third. Morrissey was a AAA All-Star last season and was hitting in the mid-.300s before falling into a horrible end of the season slump that brought his batting average down to .291. The A's have been waiting for the Australian native to have a breakout offensive season for several years and this could be a make or break campaign for the talented infielder. Morrissey will play some second, short and third this season.

The River Cats infield will be rounded out by major league veteran Bobby Smith and the A's top draft choice from the 2000 draft, Freddie Bynum. Smith hit 28 homeruns for the White Sox AAA club last season and the Oakland native will bring a strong veteran bat to the River Cats line-up. Bynum will spend time both in the infield and out in centerfield. The speedy Bynum split his 2004 campaign between Midland and Sacramento. He hit .283 for the River Cats and stole 39 bases in 2004. Bynum will be the River Cats best base-stealing threat.

The River Cats catching corps will be led by John Baker, who spent most of last season in AA-Midland. Baker had a breakthrough offensive season for the Rockhounds and hit .347 in a brief appearance with Sacramento at the end of last year. Baker is the A's most advanced catching prospect and would likely be the first catcher recalled to the big leagues if either Jason Kendall or Adam Melhuse were to go on the DL. Jackson is a long-time A's farmhand. The right-hander shared time with Baker behind the plate in Midland last season and showed good power from the right-side of the plate. Both Baker and Jackson can also play first base and could see time there this season.

Outfielders

Matt Watson, Jermaine Clark, Jack Cust and Shawn Garrett will make up the River Cats outfield. Watson was a regular corner outfielder for the River Cats last season and he had a strong offensive season, hitting .305 with 96 runs driven in. He will see a lot of time near the middle of the River Cats line-up this season. Shawn Garrett should play a lot of centerfield for the River Cats. Garrett joined the A's organization from the Rockies farm system this off-season. The switch-hitting Garrett has a career .299 minor league batting average and has 15 HR/20 SB potential from centerfield.

The versatile Jermaine Clark will probably see time in leftfield and at second and short this season. The utilityman has logged big league service time with Texas, San Diego, Detroit and, most recently, Cincinnati. Clark had a good spring at the plate and in the field. He will give the River Cats a lot of line-up flexibility.

Jack Cust may see some time in leftfield and at first, but he will probably serve as the River Cats primary designated hitter. Cust, who was one of baseball's top prospects in 2002, is an accomplished minor league power hitter but is awkward in the field. The left-handed slugger smacked 17 homers for AAA-Ottawa last season and hit 32 for A-High Desert in 1999. Cust's role in the line-up will probably be similar to the role that Graham Koonce filled for the River Cats last season.

The River Cats outfield will receive a boost sometime in mid-May when Hiram Bocachica comes off of the DL. The utilityman fractured his wrist during the last week of spring training and is expected back in six weeks. Bocachica hit well over .400 at big league camp this spring and had a 952 OPS for AAA-Tacoma last year before being recalled to Seattle mid-season. Bocachica can play all three outfield positions and is a strong defensive player.


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