Oakland A's MLN: Pushing For The Playoffs

The Oakland A's aren't the only team within their organization in the midst of a successful season. A number of the A's affiliates are making a push for the playoffs. We take a look at where the A's minor league teams sit in the standings and catch up on the rest of the news around the A's minor league system in this edition of Oakland A's Minor League Notebook…

2004 was a championship quality season for the A's franchise. The A's were tabbed as Major League Baseball's Organization of the Year by Topps for their efforts during a 2004 campaign that saw every team in the organization play .500 baseball or better and produce two league champions. In addition, the AL Rookie of the Year, Bobby Crosby, was a product of the A's farm system.

The 2005 season is shaping up to be similar to the 2004 campaign. The big league club is 15 games over .500 and is being led by a quartet of rookies who are in the running for the Rookie of the Year award and are all products of the A's system. In addition, if the season were to end today, the A's and four of their affiliates would be headed to the playoffs.

Sacramento River Cats, First Place Pacific Coast League South Division

For the PCL's Pacific South division leading Sacramento River Cats, making the playoffs is something of an annual affair. The two-time defending PCL champion is well on its way to another division title, despite having to battle with injuries and the loss of several key players to Oakland. As of Friday night, the River Cats were 65-48 and eight games ahead of second-place Tucson. After something of a slow start, Sacramento has battled back to their normal first place position and appear to be in good shape to three-peat.

The River Cats' road to the top hasn't been easy this season. A number of the key contributors to their 2004 run were not with the team, as Joe Blanton and Nick Swisher were promoted to Oakland and Graham Koonce, Mike Rose, Mike Edwards and Esteban German left the organization. Still, the team was returning a few big stars, namely first baseman and PCL MVP Dan Johnson, outfielder Matt Watson, starter John Rheinecker and catcher John Baker.

However, that core group didn't stay together for long. Rheinecker got off to a red-hot start to the season, only to see his season end early with a freak finger tendon injury. Watston, too, was red-hot with the bat, but he played so well, he played himself off the team and up to Oakland for portions of May and June. Johnson was also a key contributor to the River Cats' line-up in April and May, but he was promoted to Oakland in late-May for good. Baker struggled in April and didn't get going at the plate until May.

In addition, the River Cats saw their pitching staff decimated by injuries. Top prospect Dan Meyer, who was expected to lead the River Cats' staff, was felled by a shoulder injury in May and missed over two months. Reliable reliever Chris Mabeus also missed time, as did starter Seth Etherton. Then Oakland's pitching injuries hit and the A's took starters Etherton and Ryan Glynn and relievers Ron Flores, Jairo Garcia and Tim Harikkala for varying amounts of time. Utilityman Jermaine Clark also saw time in Oakland. And PCL All-Star starter Jimmy Serrano opted out of his contract to join the Reds in July.

Despite all of these obstacles, the River Cats have been firing on all cylinders for much of the season. Etherton has returned to Sacramento to lead the River Cats staff. Demoted A's reliever Juan Cruz has been converted into a starter by the River Cats and he has excelled at that position. Matt Watson has been a steady force in the middle of the Sacramento offense all season and DH/OF Jack Cust has provided power. The bullpen has been fortified by the trio of Garcia, Flores and Mabeus. But the real strength of the team may be its versatility. Players like Clark, Freddie Bynum, Andrew Beattie and Bobby Smith have given the River Cats a lot of options all over the field with their ability to play multiple positions and steal a base when necessary. The quartet has also hit surprisingly well.

The River Cats are a veteran-led team and have played well both at home and on the road. They currently have the best record in the PCL and will fight to maintain that mark, which would give them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Midland Rockhounds, First-Half Division Champs and First Place, Texas League West Division

The Midland Rockhounds are the only A's affiliate who can lay claim to having a playoff spot already secured. The Rockhounds won the first half Texas League West division championship which guaranteed that Midland would be in the post-season for the first time in a decade. The Rockhounds haven't rested on their laurels, however. They are still in first place in the West division with a 24-18 record and has been the Texas League's best squad all season.

Midland has seen its share of roster changes throughout the year. They lost top prospects Jairo Garcia and Brant Colamarino early in the season to promotions to AAA-Sacramento and they lost the highly talented Omar Quintanilla in July when he was traded to Colorado. However, the Rockhounds have been the beneficiary of some player promotions, as well. Early in the season, Midland's starting pitching staff was the team's biggest weakness. That changed in May and June when Stockton top starters Dallas Braden and Jason Windsor were promoted to Midland. Although both have struggled a bit lately, Braden and Windsor have been instrumental to the Rockhounds' success since their arrival.

On the hitting front, the Rockhounds' offense was boosted in July by the arrival of top hitting prospects Daric Barton, Vasili Spanos and Kevin Melillo from Stockton. However, Midland's offense didn't really need much help. The Rockhounds have hit well all season, led by star outfielder Andre Ethier. Ethier has had a storybook season. He won the All-Star game MVP and homerun derby championship. But that was just the icing on a cake of season that has been cooking all season. The Arizona State alum is hitting .324 with 17 homers and 66 RBI on the season.

Ethier's fellow outfielders have helped make the Rockhounds' offense click. Leftfielder Jason Perry leads the team with 21 homeruns and DH/OF Brian Stavisky is hitting .312/.391/.472 with nine homeruns. Centerfielder Steve Stanley has also contributed, hitting .300 with a career-high five homeruns. The Rockhounds' catchers are also a big reason for the team's success. Jeremy Brown is hitting only .253, but he has a .354 OBP and a career-high 13 homers. Back-up catcher Casey Myers hasn't played every day, but he has been a force when he has been in the line-up. Myers is hitting .350 with six homers and 31 RBI in only 160 at-bats. He has seen time at first and as DH, as well as behind the dish.

However, the real force of the Rockhounds' winning season has been their bullpen. Evan Fahrner, Nick Mattioni and Shawn Kohn have combined to make the middle innings very difficult for the opposition all season long. Fahrner, a Texas League All-Star, is 7-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 35 games and 53 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. Mattioni has made 31 appearances and he has a 1.79 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. Shawn Kohn may be the most impressive of them all. The Washington alum has thrown 69 innings in 44 appearances. Over that span he has amassed a 2.22 ERA and has struck out 76 while walking only 15. He has seven saves for the Rockhounds. Closer Alex Santos joined the team in May and has been a steady performer since then. He has 15 saves and 34 strikeouts in 32 innings. His season has only been marred by a steroid suspension in early July.

Stockton, First Place, California League North Division

When the season began, many thought that the Stockton Ports were the A's most talented minor league affiliate. The Ports began the season with top prospect Daric Barton, first round pick Richie Robnett, catching phenom Kurt Suzuki and pitching prodigy Jason Windsor on the squad. Barton and Windsor have since moved up to Midland, but the Ports are still a very talented team. They didn't play particularly well in the first half. The team started the season with a two-week road-trip necessitated by the construction of their new ballpark. That long road-trip might have sapped some of their energy in April. However, since the second half began, the Ports have been playing much better and sit a game ahead of second-place Modesto in the North Division.

The Ports have received help from a number of sources all season long. Barton was an offensive leader while he was with Stockton, but he had plenty of help from other teammates. Danny Putnam was the team's only All-Star and he has been a model of consistency all season. Putnam is hitting .302 with 11 homers and 77 RBI. His .395 OBP leads the team now that Barton has moved on. Centerfielder Dustin Majewski and rightfielder Richie Robnett have supplied the team's power. Majewski leads the team with 16 homers and Robnett is close on his tail with 14. Suzuki has provided good offense from the catcher's position, hitting .272 with eight homers and 51 RBI.

The Ports offense also received a temporary boost from Kevin Melillo when he was promoted from A-Kane County. In less than a month, Melillo hit .400/.471/.800 with nine homers and 23 RBI in only 90 at-bats before he was promoted to Midland in late July. Lloyd Turner has also provided mid-season help when he was demoted to Stockton from Midland. Turner is hitting a team-best .336 with three homers and 12 RBI in only 37 games played.

On the pitching-side of the ball, Brad Knox has given the starting staff a boost since joining the team from an injury rehab stint in June. Knox is 6-5 with a 4.13 ERA in 15 starts for the Ports. He has 66 strikeouts and has allowed less than a hit an inning in the hitter-friendly Cal League. In the bullpen, the closer-duo of Jared Burton and Jeff Muessig have gotten the job done. Burton has a team-leading 16 saves and a 1.81 ERA in 44.2 innings. Burton has a 53:14 strikeout to walk ratio. Muessig has 15 saves and has struck out 51 batters in 40.1 innings.

Vancouver Canadians, First Place, Northwest League West Division

The reason for the success of the Vancouver Canadians this season has been easy to identify. Their offense has been mostly tepid, but their pitching has been other-worldly. Led by super-starter Mike Madsen, the C's have a league-leading 3.23 ERA as a team. They have allowed the fewest number of homeruns, the fewest number of hits and the fewest number of runs allowed.

The aforementioned Madsen has been the league's best starting pitcher so far this season. The 21st round pick is 4-0 with a 1.15 ERA over nine games (seven starts). Madsen has allowed only 30 hits in 47 innings and has struck out 32 against eight walks. Trey Shields has also been an impressive member of the starting rotation. Shields is 2-1 with a 2.75 ERA in eight games (six starts). He has 37 K's in 36 innings pitched.

In the bullpen, Brad Davis has been nearly unhittable. Davis has yet to allow an earned run in 21 innings of work. Davis has struck out 29 and has walked only six. Brad Kilby leads the team with nine saves and he has a 2.00 ERA over 18 innings. Kilby has 22 strike outs against five walks. Jason Ray has had some of the nastiest stuff in the bullpen, although he has had trouble controlling that stuff at times. Ray has allowed only 10 hits in 17.1 innings and has struck out 27. However, he has walked 18 batters. Stephen Bryant (2.30 ERA) and Ron Madej (1.23 ERA) also deserve mention for their work this season.

The C's offense has been nearly silent this season, but there are a few players making an impact. Jeff Baisley is one of the league-leaders in RBI with 28 and he is tied for the team lead in homeruns with four. Outfielder and lead-off hitter Mike Massaro leads the team with a .310 BA and a .396 OBP. High school draft choice Justin Sellers is tied with Wilber Perez for the team-lead in stolen bases with six.

Other Notes

- 2002 draft choice Ben Fritz is continuing his rehabilitation with the A's Arizona Rookie League team. The A's will watch Fritz's progress closely. The Frenso State alum was one of the A's top arms before he went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. During the off-season, Sacramento catcher John Baker (who had caught Fritz at AA-Midland last year) compared Fritz to current A's starter Joe Blanton.

"Fritz is really similar to Blanton in the stuff that he has in that he has a good fastball, good curveball and a good slider, so if he can develop the change-up the way that Joe has and develop some consistency, he'll be right behind Joe in the big leagues," Baker said.

There has been some speculation that Fritz could be moved into the bullpen, where his combination of pitches could make him a dominant late-inning reliever. For now, Fritz will continue to work on increasing his arm strength and getting back to full form.

- Shane Komine, who was also felled by Tommy John surgery last season, is also progressing with his rehab. Komine is pitching for A-Stockton as a starter. Komine has made two starts for the Ports, neither of which have lasted more than 4.2 innings due to a strict pitch limit. Komine threw four shut-out inning in his first outing for the Ports. His second outing was quite as successful, as he allowed four runs in 4.2 innings pitched. However, Komine did strike out six. In 8.2 innings for the Ports, Komine has struck out 11 and has walked only three.

- The Ports set an all-time attendance record on Saturday. The record had held since 1941. The Ports set the record in their first season at the new Banner Island Ballpark. With Stockton in first place by a game in their division and attendance records being shattered, it has been an equivocally successful first season at Banner Island for the Ports.

- A's 2005 top pick Cliff Pennington has been burning rubber in Kane County since his arrival. Pennington stole two more bases on Saturday night, upping his season total to 17. Pennington has stolen the 17 bases in only 42 games.

- Kane County Cougar Manager Dave Joppie became a proud papa on Friday. The Joppies are the parents of a new baby boy, Casey Ray Joppie. Joppie has gone home to be with his family and in his absence the team is being managed by Hitting Coach Aaron Nieckula.

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