DeFrancesco A Steady Hand For River Cats

The prospects in the A's system are not limited to those in the player ranks. For years, the A's have produced top-flight coaches. One of the A's top coaching prospects is River Cats manager Tony DeFrancesco, who is entering his 14th season as a manager. During that time, he has won 773 games and a "Minor League Manager of the Year" award. We recently caught up with DeFrancesco to get his thoughts on his future, the River Cats' 2005 season and his impression of some of the A's prospects.

A Winning Tradition

The Sacramento River Cats have made winning an annual event since arriving on the scene seven years ago and manager Tony DeFrancesco has been a big part of that tradition. DeFrancesco joined the River Cats as the team's manager in 2003 after five seasons as the skipper for the A's AA affiliate in Midland. He immediately made an impact, as the River Cats won 92 games and the Pacific Coast League Championship. The 92 wins were the most for any PCL team since 1990 and the season earned DeFrancesco the title of "Minor League Manager of the Year". He followed that season with another title run in 2004, as the River Cats notched their first back-to-back PCL titles. Although Sacramento fell short of another title in 2005, they still managed to capture their fifth division title. According to DeFrancesco, a lot of the River Cats' success has to do with playing in front of the big home crowds at Raley Field.

"Sacramento is a great place to play. It is a first class organization and the players really enjoy playing there. We've played great at home since I've been with the team," DeFrancesco said.

DeFrancesco has been with the A's organization for more than 15 years as a manager and roving instructor. Before that, he spent eight years in the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds organizations as a minor league catcher.

During his time as a coach in the Oakland chain, he has seen a host of major league stars get their feet wet in the A's system, including Rookies of the Year Bobby Crosby, Huston Street and Ben Grieve, as well as established major leaguers such as Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Jason Giambi and Scott Spiezio. "A lot of my coaching now is based on my past experiences with the great players who have come through [the A's system]," DeFrancesco said.

Although DeFrancesco joined the A's organization before Billy Beane was named General Manager, the Sacramento skipper hasn't seen a dramatic change in philosophies between the Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane eras.

"Since we've been doing this, the philosophy has pretty much been consistent. We have always had the same hitting philosophy. Now we have a better pitching philosophy and a base-running philosophy, but overall it has been pretty consistent," DeFrancesco said.

"The organization has always had a good plan and a good direction since I've been here."

DeFrancesco credits A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman for keeping him in the organization for so many years.

"Lieppman is probably my number one fan and he is a big reason why I am still with the organization after all of these years," DeFrancesco said.

"Also, getting a chance to manage in Sacramento is really important. If I am going to be coaching in the minor leagues, Sacramento is where I want to be coaching."

Early success in Sacramento made DeFrancesco's transition from being a AA manager to a AAA manager a relatively easy one. Managing a AAA squad has its own set of unique challenges because a AAA team will have a larger mix of veterans and young players and is likely to see the most roster movement.

"Probably my first year it was a transition from AA to AAA, but we won something like 92 games that year, so it made the transition pretty easy. At times you are going to lose players to injuries or promotions or in a big trade, but you have to be able to make those adjustments," DeFrancesco said.

2005 Season Filled With Challenges

Despite capturing a division title and notching 80 wins, the 2005 season was not without turbulence for DeFrancesco and the River Cats. Injuries both to the River Cats and to the Oakland A's caused a lot of roster turnover.

"Last season was probably the most difficult since I've been [in Sacramento] because of all of the injuries. We lost a couple of great pitchers early on, like John Rheinecker and then our lefty set-up man later in the year, Ron Flores, and those guys are hard to replace," DeFrancesco said.

"At various points, we had guys up from [high-A] Stockton just to fill roster spots, but we pulled it all together anyway and had a great season. The team did a good job signing some free agents like Mike Saipe and Adam Johnson and bringing up some guys from AA like Mike Ziegler, who did well for us at the end of the year."

The 2005 season was also memorable for DeFrancesco because he saw the promotion of two long-time organizational men – utilityman Freddie Bynum and reliever Ron Flores – to the big leagues for the first time in their careers. For DeFrancesco, watching players who move all the way up through the system finally get that call is one of the most rewarding parts of coaching.

"Those are the guys who you really root for, the homegrown guys who work so hard through the system. We were really proud of both of them," DeFrancesco said.

Bynum was drafted as a shortstop in 2000, but despite being one of the system's fastest players, he had found himself stuck behind a slew of middle infielders, including Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis. In 2004, Bynum began to get some playing time in the outfield and that added flexibility made him a more valuable commodity to the A's, according to DeFrancesco.

"With Freddie, adding the ability to play in the outfield gave him another position and really opened up a lot of doors for him. You need guys on your team who can fill a utility role and Freddie is a guy who can do that now. It was huge for him," DeFrancesco said.

DeFrancesco also saw promise in late season minor league free agent acquisition Adam Johnson. The right-handed starter was a former first round draft choice of the Minnesota Twins, but he was toiling away in the Independent Leagues before the A's scooped him up in August. After two rough starts, Johnson settled down. He had an impressive 17:4 K:BB and earned himself an invitation to big league camp this spring.

"Johnson just had to get into shape after being in the Independent Leagues. I think he was able to get away with a few pitches there that he couldn't in AAA," DeFrancesco said.

"Once he got that all worked out, he started getting his fastball and change-up over and was very effective. Now he is in big league camp and I think this is a good opportunity for him."

Johnson was given the opportunity to join the A's organization in large part because of injuries to two of the top River Cats' starters, lefties John Rheinecker and Dan Meyer. Rheinecker missed the last three months of the season. Meyer made 17 starts and two relief appearances, but, according to DeFrancesco, he was never healthy throughout the season.

"Meyer was probably the biggest disappointment for us this season in that his shoulder just couldn't hold up. We shut him down early and he rehabbed and came back and it still wasn't right. He had some tightness in there and it just never got better," DeFrancesco said.

Currently, DeFrancesco is in major league camp working with a host of familiar faces from the 2005 squad, including Bynum, Flores, Meyer, Rheinecker, Johnson (both Dan and Adam), John Baker, Mike Rouse and Chris Mabeus. However, one potential member of his 2006 squad has already caught DeFrancesco's eye.

"It looks like Daric Barton is going to be a great player," DeFrancesco said.

He also noted that Barton has been working out exclusively at first base this spring.

Future Plans

Although DeFrancesco is enjoying his time in Sacramento, he has one eye on his own future, which he hopes involves being a manager at the major league level.

"Absolutely down the road I would love to be a manager in the big leagues," DeFrancesco said.

"Right now, I am just trying to get my name out there, and kind of like a player, I am looking for that perfect opportunity in the big leagues either as a bench coach or a bullpen coach or a first or third base coach. I think my resume in the minor leagues speaks for itself and I believe I'd be qualified to handle any of those responsibilities."

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