Sacramento Notebook: Slow Start For The Cats

WEST SACRAMENTO - Despite a roster deep with top prospects and major-league veterans, the Sacramento River Cats have gotten off to the worst start in their team history. However, with a win on Thursday and the return of Dan Straily to the rotation, things are looking up for the Oakland A's Triple-A affiliate.

Team Overview

While the Oakland A's have jumped out to one of the best records in the American League, their typically strong Triple-A affiliate - the Sacramento River Cats - are off to their worst start in team history, as they finished the season's first week at 2-6.

Sacramento went 2-5 back in 2011 – their second-worst record after a week's play. The River Cats have struggled defensively and on the mound to start 2013. The bats have been solid, however. As a team, the River Cats came into Thursday hitting .268/.353/.751 and have averaged more than four runs per game.

"We haven't played a clean game," new manager Steve Scarsone said.

"But in the first week, if we can go with the theory that we're getting this out of our system and we can gather our momentum a little bit…

"These are all things that happen during the course of the season. You take them and you adjust and you move forward. We would love to see some kind of consistency over the next three or four days just so we can start feeling the confidence of, ‘we got this.' But I like what's going on in the sense of work habits. Everyone's doing their job, making the effort to get themselves on track."

Prior to Thursday, the team's pitching staff combined to have a 6.43 ERA and they were walking an average of five hitters per nine innings, while giving up 74 hits in 63 innings, allowing hitters a .300 average.

The lone bright spot on the hill has been Sonny Gray, who started Sacramento's first win of the season but didn't get the decision. He threw six-scoreless innings, allowing two hits and three walks, and he struck out four in his only outing so far.

Infield defense has been an issue for the club because many players have been playing new positions. Luke Montz, a natural catcher, started the season playing first base until Daric Barton arrived after going through waivers unclaimed. Grant Green is still taking his lumps at second base and even got a start at first base, something that's likely to continue as the season goes on in order to keep his bat in the lineup.

Green started the season getting time in the field over fellow second baseman Jemile Weeks, who made just one start at there in the season's first six games. Weeks has made five starts as designated hitter, but on Wednesday, he made his professional debut at shortstop and started there again on Thursday.

"Everybody still seems to be getting comfortable," Weeks said. "It's a little uneven, the way the comfort levels are. But for the most part guys are still trying, they're trying to put forward their best foot and it's about just meshing together and becoming a good unit."

The organization expects the pitching to improve after the staff's rough start, especially a bullpen that has a lot of former major leaguers. Dan Straily's addition to the rotation should even out the numbers as well.

"There's no reason to really worry," Scarsone said. "These guys are professional and they wouldn't be here if they didn't know how to get it done. If it was a question of whether or not this guy could do it at this level, then we would have to do some more analysis, but we've pretty much got an idea."

Top positional prospect Michael Choice has gone through some typical early-season struggles, hitting .207/.303/.310 with a homer and six driven in, making him tied for the team lead with Michael Taylor. Four of Choice's RBIs came on the grand slam he hit Sunday, his first long ball at the Triple-A level.

"The level of play is definitely higher because most guys in Triple-A are older and definitely have that experience of playing the game for a long time," Choice said. "Pitchers know how to pitch, they're not just throwing. Just making those adjustments as a hitter is different. You really have to hit your pitch and not just swing because it's a strike.

"It's early. I'm just trying to see the ball and hit the ball right now. I'm not worried about numbers at this point…At this point it's just about getting it going every day."

Straily made his River Cats' debut for Sacramento on Thursday. He pitched 5.2 innings, allowing one earned run on four hits with nine strikeouts. Straily didn't walk a batter, a good sign after he struggled some with command this spring. He threw 107 pitches and had his pitch count inflated drastically by some spotty defense behind him.

"It was good to face some good adversity like that in the first," Straily said.

"I was pretty happy. I only made one bad pitch in the first inning…Outside of that, it really wasn't a bad outing from my standpoint but it's good to get yourself into those situations and get out of them. It's going to happen."

Sacramento committed three errors in the first inning that led to a pair of unearned runs. But Straily was typically dominant from the third inning on, retiring 12 of 14 he faced. He took a comebacker that ricocheted off his shoulder and his face in the first, but made the play and stayed in the game.

The right-hander was demoted back from Oakland after making a solid start in Houston, where he fanned 11 Astros in 6.2 innings to earn the win. The A's sent him to Sacramento to make room for Bartolo Colon to rejoin the rotation after serving the final five games of his 50-game suspension from last season.

Comings and Goings

The A's designated Barton for assignment just prior to the season starting and he was outrighted to Sacramento on April 6 after clearing waivers. He has appeared in five games, notching three hits and three walks. Now not on the roster, Barton is firmly behind Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman on the first base depth chart. Barton will continue to get paid his $1.1 million contract that the team extended him for in the offseason to play in Triple-A.

The addition of Stephen Vogt was unexpected considering the number of catchers currently in the A's system, but it's paid off in the early going. Vogt is nine-for-16 so far in Sacramento and is on the 40-man roster, making him the first option behind the plate should something happen to John Jaso or Derek Norris. David Freitas was transferred to Double-A Midland to make room for Vogt.

Andy Parrino made his A's debut this week after Scott Sizemore suffered his second-consecutive season-ending ACL tear. Parrino had just four hits in his first six games with the River Cats, but earned the promotion thanks to his versatility to play both infield and outfield. Parrino should remain with the A's as long as Adam Rosales is on the mend from his intercostal injury. It has been reported Rosales and Hiroyuki Nakajima are close to beginning their rehab assignments, which could come soon.

Reliever Dan Otero was DFA'd on April 6 and outrighted back to Sacramento after he cleared waivers. The right-hander hasn't allowed a run in his three appearances. Otero took Nate Long's spot in the bullpen, who was demoted to the RockHounds without making an appearance for the River Cats.

Who's Hot

Michael Taylor, entering his fourth full season in Sacramento, is off to a hot start. The right fielder is hitting .371 with a 1062 OPS, thanks to a team-leading 13 hits and six RBI. He was hitting .419 before going hitless in four at-bats in Thursday's win, including two fly outs to the warning track.

Taylor said his approach at the plate for 2013 would be to try to hit everything as high as he could to left field, hoping power numbers would follow.

"I came into spring with that mindset but then realized I needed to build a swing. So I went back to building a swing. Right now, what I'm doing is picking my spots and taking chances," Taylor said.

Having made numerous adjustments that haven't yet yielded him a major league job, Taylor appears content with his standing within the organization, but continues to work towards becoming a more complete offensive threat, power included.

"At the end of the day, I think one of things you realize as you get older is you are the hitter you are," Taylor said. "But it doesn't mean that you can't learn – mix things in – that are advantageous for your career. At times this year, when I think they're going to come (inside), I'll sit in there, which is something I've never really done before."

Taylor admitted his power numbers might have been hurt by his home ballpark in Raley Field, citing heavy winds coming in from left field to start the season. But Taylor has already hit a pair of home runs, setting the tone for what could be a big year in the power category.

Weeks has continued to hit well after a solid spring training, despite not making the 25-man roster. The switch-hitting second baseman-turned-shortstop lifted his average to .353 with a pair of hits in Thursday's win. Weeks is coming off a disappointing season with Oakland, where he hit .221/.305/.304 in 118 and found himself demoted to Sacramento.

With the season-ending injury to Sizemore, the A's elected to promote Parrino over Weeks, despite Week's major-league resume.

"The way things have been going, no matter how well I've played I've been pretty set at this Triple-A level. I'm going to do whatever I can at this level to get to where I need to be," Weeks said.

Weeks is the only player on the River Cats' roster to hit in all eight games so far in 2013. He'll continue to get regular at-bats at shortstop, with Green playing second, and could find himself back in Oakland if he can sustain the success over a prolonged sample.

Shane Peterson missed a few games when he was in Houston with the A's when it appeared that Brandon Moss was going to go on the paternity leave list. Moss's wife still hasn't given birth, and Peterson has returned to Sacramento with the hot bat he carried all spring. With two more hits on Thursday, Peterson is batting .381 with a 1076 OPS in 21 at-bats in the middle of Sacramento's line-up.

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