Sacramento River Cats: diamonds in the rough

Baseball rebuilds its image, and the Sacramento River Cats rebuild the Oakland Athletics

The Sacramento River Cats, the Oakland Athletics’ minor-league team, have their Pacific Coast League home opener this Friday, April 11.

The Sacramento River Cats, the Oakland Athletics’ minor-league team, have their Pacific Coast League home opener this Friday, April 11.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

These are strange times for Major League Baseball. The past decade’s best players, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, were cheaters. Actor Billy Crystal was allowed to play for the New York Yankees. The San Francisco Giants easily could lose 100 games. Most recently, America’s pastime began its season in Japan. And George W. Bush might end up as an MLB commentator, or worse: the new commissioner.

The future’s even less certain for fans of the Oakland Athletics—and, by extension, its minor-league affiliate team, the Sacramento River Cats. After 10 years under general manager Billy Beane’s stewardship, the A’s have yet to win a World Series, and 2007 was their worst season this decade. Neverending roadblocks plague the proposed new stadium in Fremont. Superstars stay injured. Rumors of Bonds joining the A’s work the faithful into a frenzy of seething. Meanwhile, the team still has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and finding an edge over the New Yorks and Bostons of the world is harder than ever. When the A’s looked to Sacramento for fresh blood at the end of last year, they came up empty. As San Francisco Chronicle A’s reporter Susan Slusser, who spoke with SN&R last week, put it, “Beane realized there wasn’t a lot in the cupboard by the end of last season.”

So what’s a low-budget, underachieving, injury-ridden organization to do? Why, rebuild, of course. Beane began this past offseason by trading the organization’s two best players, All-Star pitcher Dan Haren and fan-favorite outfielder Nick Swisher, for a handful of top-ranked prospects. Problem is, these new players aren’t yet ready for the majors. Which means Oakland’s future will come to fruition here, in Sacramento, with the River Cats.

Rebuilding isn’t easy for fans.

There are many cuts, and they’re all deep.

“I think the A’s are moving in a direction where they want to build a powerhouse team going into their new stadium [in Fremont in 2010],” said Tyler “Blez” Bleszinski, who runs Athletics Nation (, the Web’s most popular sports team site. But to build for the future, Beane would have to sacrifice the now.

The Beane way is a special brand of wheeling and dealing. In 2003, Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game documented how Beane took the low-payroll A’s and made them into one of the winningest teams in baseball. But Moneyball let the cat out of the bag. Now, most MLB franchises have sabermetricians and stat analysts on staff. “I think a lot of other teams are using very similar evaluation tools now, so the A’s don’t necessarily have the same advantage as they once did,” Blez said.

Beane’s first move was to trade ace Haren, exploiting a market that overvalued starting pitching. The Haren trade landed five players, three of them top-10 prospects according to Baseball America. Next went Swisher, which added two more top-10 pitching talents and the Chicago White Sox’s overall No. 1 prospect, Ryan Sweeney. Two veterans out the door, nine newbies on board, six touted top-10 prospects. Sacrificing the now—the season and with it your most talented players—yielded the riches of more than four amateur drafts. The River Cats now had unprecedented talent.

River Cats’ catcher Landon Powell was injured the second half of last season. He hopes to make strides this year, his first full-term in Sacramento.

SN&R Photo by Nicholas Miller

“And the two best prospects are right there in Sacramento with the Gonzalezes,” Slusser said of the A’s top hopefuls, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and pitcher Gio Gonzalez (no relation).

Carlos is Oakland’s top-ranked baller. The 22-year-old plays center field, bats lefty, hits for average and power, has wheels and a rocket for an arm. “Carlos has all that,” River Cats manager Todd Steverson said. “He can possess so many tools in one game, and when you see it, you’ll think he’s an absolute superstar.”

But not just yet. First he must learn how to play like an A. “They keep comparing him to where Eric Chavez was at the same age,” Slusser observed. “Chavez didn’t walk a ton in the lower levels of the minors. Obviously, when he got to the major leagues, he showed that he was very patient.” Carlos agreed. “I used to swing at everything when I was with the Diamondbacks,” he said. “But with this team, everybody knows they have a different way to play. They want you to get on base, be more patient. I think that’s going to help me. That’s going to make me a better hitter.”

Many feel Carlos already is talented enough to make a splash in the majors. “Carlos was so clearly the best option at center in the spring,” Slusser said, but he tweaked his hamstring and was scratched from the A’s opening-day roster against the Boston Red Sox in Japan. Carlos was upset, but unfazed. “When the team left to Japan, I was hurt. I was a little bit disappointed because I was hurt, but I think that happens to everybody.”

Regardless, it might not be long before you see him in green and gold. Most feel he’ll be called up to the majors by the All-Star break. “It’ll be a hell of a lot more exciting for me to see Carlos Gonzalez out there in center field than Emil Brown, all due respect to Emil,” said Blez, rebuilding be damned. Slusser agreed, noting that holding Carlos back probably had more to do with arbitration and contracts than his hamstring.

Sacramento’s other 22-year-old Gonzalez, Gio, is the organization’s top pitching prospect. Many compare Gio to Oakland’s current ace, Rich Harden. Gio throws a 95-mph fastball, but also wields a nasty curveball and is still tinkering with his change-up. “I talked to Rich and asked him about what he did against Boston [in Japan],” Gio said of Harden’s tutelage. “He said, ‘Nothing much, man. I just located my fastball and threw my change-up. Fastball/change-up the whole game.’ Two pitches and you dominate Boston with nine strikeouts?”

Blez and others also like undrafted prospect Henry Rodriguez, whom the A’s plucked from Venezuela, paying off on the recent decision to invest in international scouting. “The A’s have Harden, but supposedly this kid has great mechanics, can throw free and easy, and he can hit 98, 99, sometimes even hit triple-digits on radar gun,” Blez said. “It’s been a long time since the A’s have had someone like that.” Many say Harden’s days in an A’s uniform are numbered; whether it’s to Gio or to Rodriguez, Harden eventually will pass the torch. Rebuilding continues, cuts get even deeper—and nobody’s untouchable.

Catch top prospect Carlos Gonzalez before he’s gone … to Oakland.

SN&R Photo by Nicholas Miller

“I see Joe Blanton and Rich Harden getting traded,” Slusser predicted.

Blez concurred. “I think the A’s themselves are going to exploit teams’ desperate needs for starting pitching, which is why you haven’t seen Blanton or Harden traded yet,” he hinted. He also argued that Harden’s health concerns and Blanton’s lack of notoriety are the only reasons they weren’t dealt this past offseason. After the hurlers’ hot starts to the season, GMs are taking notice. “You move Blanton over to the National League and he instantly becomes a No. 2 guy on most any staff,” Blez argued. “And Harden was pretty much auditioning for the Yankees in his first two starts against the Red Sox.”

“I think that Gio comes up at the trading deadline,” Slusser agreed. “If Harden gets traded in the next month, I think [River Cat] Greg Smith is the first guy to come up, because he was so solid during the spring.”

Stop the bleeding? Sorry, A’s fans: Beane’s just getting started. But when the storm passes and the trades subside, Sacramento will be flooded with prospects. Faustino De Los Santos, a fearless 22-year-old righty hurler, came over in the Swisher trade fastball/slider/curveball repertoire who’ll likely be in Sac by mid-season. You’ll see Brett Anderson in a River Cats uni in a couple years; the 20-year-old lefty is unproven but highly touted. And James Simmons, the organization’s No. 1 draft pick last year, has been climbing the ranks and could feasibly make the River Cats’ roster by July.

So while the A’s wait for the future, now is the time for the River Cats. Days may be rough for baseball, but there are some diamonds to behold here in Sacramento, where some of the most promising ballers will make their Raley Field debut this Friday.