The Sacramento River Cats have historically had good pitching staffs, and the 2008 season should be no exception. The team is set to feature a pitching staff filled with some of the A's top pitching prospects, as well as pitchers with major league experience.
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Smith will be joined at the top of the rotation by the A's top pitching prospect, Gio Gonzalez. The lefty was acquired as part of the trade with the Chicago White Sox for Nick Swisher. Gonzalez led all minor league pitchers with 185 strike-outs in 2007. He also posted a 3.18 ERA in 150 innings for Double-A Birmingham last season. Gonzalez was named a Southern League All-Star for his efforts last year. The 22-year-old has been traded three times during his young career – once to Philadelphia by Chicago and once back to Chicago from Philadelphia, and now to Oakland from Chicago. He has one of the best curveballs in the minor leagues and was a Futures Game participant for Philadelphia in 2006.
Continuing the lefty theme in the River Cats' rotation will be Dallas Braden, who returns to Sacramento after making 11 starts for them last season. Braden also appeared in 20 games for the A's in 2007, his rookie year in the big leagues. The Stockton native struggled at times in the major leagues (6.72 ERA), but he was outstanding in 13 minor league starts between Midland and Sacramento (2.84 ERA and 87 strike-outs in 76 innings). The 24-year-old pitched the game of the year in the Pacific Coast League last season when he struck-out 17 in a complete-game shut-out versus Colorado Springs.
2007 River Cats' workhorse Brad Knox returns to Sacramento in 2008. Knox led all A's minor leaguers with 163.2 innings of work in 2007. The right-hander had a 4.79 ERA in 23 games for Sacramento and a 2.19 ERA in four starts for Double-A Midland last season. Knox was the winning pitcher for Sacramento in the PCL title-clinching game versus New Orleans during last year's playoffs.
Former A's swingman Kirk Saarloos also figures to get some starts for Sacramento this season. Saarloos was signed by Oakland to a minor league contract after he was released by Cincinnati this off-season. Saarloos was traded by the A's to Cincinnati for David Shafer and a player to be named later just before the start of the 2007 season. He was expected to be the Reds' fifth starter, but Saarloos never got on-track with Cincinnati. He had a 7.17 ERA in 42.2 innings for the Reds. Saarloos also spent time in Triple-A last year, where he had a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings. He was a non-roster invitee to spring training with Oakland and pitched well for the A's this spring.
Lefty Dan Meyer will start the year on the DL after undergoing an emergency appendectomy this spring, but he should rejoin the rotation as soon as he has regained his full strength. Meyer was one of the best starters in the PCL last season. He posted a 3.28 ERA in 21 starts for Sacramento in 2007, his best season with the River Cats. Meyer also made his debut with Oakland at the end of last year, posting an 8.82 ERA in 16.1 innings.
Fellow 2007 River Cats' starter Shane Komine will also be on the DL to start the season, as he rehabs through a shoulder injury. Komine had a 4.87 ERA in 23 starts for Sacramento last season and made two appearances with the A's. Minor league free agent signing Chris Gissell will also begin the year on the DL after pitching well for the A's in big league spring camp, but he should join the River Cats' staff when he is healthy.
Sacramento's bullpen will feature a number of promising arms. Prospects Joey Devine and Jerry Blevins lead the way for Sacramento's relief corps. Devine, who was acquired in the Mark Kotsay trade, saved 20 games for Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond last season. The former NC State star closer also had a 1.08 ERA in 8.1 major league innings last year. Devine has seen time in the major leagues in every season that he has been a pro (he was drafted in 2005) and he throws in the mid-90s.
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Devine and Blevins will be helped in the late innings by Jeff Gray, who led all A's minor leaguers with 15 saves last season. Gray was added to the A's 40-man roster during the off-season and pitched in his first major league spring training camp this spring. He also appeared in the Arizona Fall League this off-season. His fastball can touch the mid-90s, as well. Gray's AFL teammate Brad Kilby will also be a fixture in the River Cats' bullpen. The left-hander had a 2.92 ERA in 74 innings split between Double-A and High-A last season. The Northern California native struck-out 85 in 65.2 innings last year and pitched well at the AFL.
Submarine right-hander Brad Ziegler returns to the River Cats' bullpen after a standout season in 2007. Ziegler posted a 2.41 ERA and won 12 games as a reliever for Midland and Sacramento. He also pitched well during the playoffs for the River Cats. He will be joined by two A's minor league free agent acquisitions, left-handers Ryan Wing and Troy Cate. Wing, a former second round pick of the White Sox, posted a 3.24 ERA as a starter and a reliever at Double-A Birmingham last season. He could see time in the River Cats' rotation, as well as the bullpen this season. Cate made his major league debut in 2007 with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 3.38 ERA in 16 innings. He had a 6.81 ERA in 71.1 innings for Triple-A Memphis last year. All three pitchers were non-roster invitees to the A's major league spring training camp this spring.
The River Cats should have firepower at the plate, as well as on the mound. Their offense will be led by outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who is the A's top position prospect playing in the minors now that Daric Barton is in the major leagues. Gonzalez, who arrived in Oakland from Arizona in the Haren trade, is a five-tool prospect who hit .288 with 17 homers and 86 RBIs in 130 games split between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He had a stand-out spring performance with the big league club and almost made the team out of spring training. Gonzalez is likely to be the A's starting centerfielder at some point this season.
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Veteran Todd Linden, who signed with the A's as a minor league free agent this off-season, joins the Sacramento outfield after batting better than .700 during major league spring training. The switch-hitter has major league experience with the San Francisco Giants and the Florida Marlins. Last season, Linden hit .245 with a homer in 184 major league at-bats and he hit .375 in 14 games at Triple-A. Linden is a career .289 hitter with an 878 OPS in six minor league seasons.
Nick Blasi returns to Sacramento to start the season after winning the MVP award for the PCL Championship Series for the River Cats last season. Blasi hit .316 in 89 games for Sacramento in 2007 and .302 in 124 games overall for Sacramento, Stockton and Midland. Richie Robnett, who hit 18 homers for Double-A Midland in 2007, will begin the year on the disabled list. The powerful outfielder was added to the A's 40-man roster this off-season and he should see a lot of time in the River Cats outfield once he is healthy.
The River Cats' infield is filled with experienced players. Jeff Baisley will make his Triple-A debut this season after hitting 11 homeruns for Double-A Midland in 2007. A knee injury ruined what was a promising season for Baisley last year and affected him while he was participating in the Arizona Fall League. The 2006 Midwest League MVP rehabbed during the off-season and is healthy now. He was a non-roster invitee to major league spring training and played well with the A's this spring.
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Up-the-middle the River Cats will feature Gregorio Petit and Brooks Conrad at the start of the season, with Kevin Melillo joining the fray once he finishes his rehab on his right wrist. Eddie Cornejo will serve as a back-up at third, short and second.
Petit is coming off of a strong 2007 season and a solid spring training at big league camp. He traveled with the A's as an extra player to Japan and hit .292 in 133 games between Midland and Sacramento last season. Petit can play second and short, but his natural position is shortstop and he should see the majority of the time at short for Sacramento this season. He was added to the A's 40-man roster during the off-season.
Conrad signed with A's as a minor league free agent this off-season and he had a big spring at the plate with Oakland. Like Petit, Conrad got to travel with the A's as an extra player to Japan. The switch-hitting infielder had spent his entire career in the Houston Astros' chain. He batted only .218 last season for Triple-A Round Rock, but he hit 22 homers and drove-in 70 runs. Conrad had 24 homers and 94 RBIs in 2006 for Round Rock.
Melillo is working his way back from a wrist injury that required surgery this off-season. The second baseman spent virtually all of the 2007 season with Sacramento. He was hampered by the wrist injury during the second half of the season, but still managed a 798 OPS in 98 games. Melillo made his major league debut with Oakland in June and walked in his only at-bat. The versatile Cornejo spent most of the 2007 season with Midland, where he hit .286 in 59 games. He appeared in eight late season games for the River Cats and was on the Sacramento roster for the playoffs.
Behind the plate, Sacramento will feature a talented catching tandem: Justin Knoedler and Landon Powell. Both Knoedler and Powell are considered among the elite defensive catchers in the minor leagues. Knoedler signed with the A's as a minor league free agent over the off-season. He had spent his entire career with San Francisco, where he saw major league time in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Knoedler was a non-roster invitee to the A's big league spring training and he accompanied the team as an extra player to Japan.
Powell is back on the field after rehabbing a torn ACL in his left knee, which he sustained in July of last season. It was the second time that Powell had torn the ACL in that knee. The switch-hitting catcher was in the middle of a huge season before he got hurt. He hit .292 with 14 homers in only 64 games for Midland and Sacramento before the injury. Powell, who was added to the A's 40-man roster during the off-season, is expected to be eased into catching at the start of the season, catching a few games a week before taking on more full-time duties. He will see at-bats as a DH and pinch-hitter when he isn't catching. Powell's recovery is already ahead of where the A's thought he would be when he was first injured. The A's anticipated that he would start the year in extended spring training, but he proved himself healthy this spring and caught all nine innings of the River Cats-Ports scrimmage on Tuesday. Gabriel Ortiz is also on the River Cats' roster as an emergency third catcher. He will begin the year on the DL. The 22-year-old is the youngest player on the River Cats' roster.