Followers of minor league baseball should be accustomed to seeing the Sacramento River Cats among the best squads in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. The Athletics' affiliate has captured eight division titles and four PCL championships in the last 10 seasons, an amazing run of success considering the constant turnover they endure at the Triple-A level. Each group to come through Sacramento has had its own blend, but the 2010 edition looks as talented as any in the minors.
"It's a different kind of talent," A's farm director Keith Lieppman said, comparing this year's River Cats to previous editions. "Each year's had its own particular interesting group of guys. Some have been guys who can go up to the big leagues and help out, others are the younger prospects. This is a youthful group, and it's exciting with guys like (Chris) Carter and (Michael) Taylor."
Carter and Taylor, the top two prospects in the organization, are certainly the headliners, as we selected the River Cats as the minors' best lineup before the season. Neither of them put up spectacular numbers against big league competition in spring training. Carter homered in his first spring at-bat but went on to hit just .160/.250/.360 in 25 at-bats, while Taylor fared little better, hitting .189/.250/.270 in 37 at-bats. Nevertheless, both impressed with their confidence and work ethic.
"They were unfazed," Lieppman said. "Both are very mature kids. They're confident. It's really exciting to see them handle themselves around some of the other guys, although our big league club is pretty young as well. When they get their opportunities, they're going to fit in. They're not overwhelmed by the situation or the experience."
Of the two, Taylor has gotten off to the hotter start at Sacramento, hitting .292/.346/.583 (7-for24) through six games. Carter was slowed after getting hit in the hand by a pitch on Opening Day against Portland. He missed two games and has started the season just 3-for-15.
We documented some of the surprising roster decisions the Athletics made at the end of spring training last week. Oakland retained out-of-options players Jake Fox and Eric Patterson on the big league squad, along with young righthander Tyson Ross, and designated veteran Jack Cust for assignment. The ripple effect of those moves has been felt in Sacramento. Cust accepted his assignment to Triple-A—and the $2.8 million salary that came with it—and has been plugged in between Carter and Taylor in the River Cats' lineup, forcing opposing pitchers to have to run a fearsome 3-4-5 gauntlet. (And, true to form, Cust already has drawn four walks in three games, though he's still looking for his first River Cats home run.)
The other casualty of the roster pinch at the big league level was catcher Landon Powell, who backed up A's starter Kurt Suzuki last year but has had to cede that role to Fox to start 2010. Back in Triple-A, Powell will have to split time behind the plate with 24-year-old Josh Donaldson. The A's still want Donaldson to get the majority of the time behind the plate since he's not as developed defensively. The challenge comes in finding enough at-bats for both of them, a task which became more difficult with the addition of Cust to take over the role of primary DH.
"When you're splitting time, getting at-bats is the most important thing," Lieppman said. "Landon knows how to catch, he just has to stay sharp. But the at-bats are hard. If you're going to be in a position to get called back to the big leagues, you've got to stay sharp that way and then the catching takes care of itself because he's used to doing that as the backup catcher last year. Donaldson needs more playing time because he hasn't developed totally yet as a catcher."
A possible solution is to have one of Donaldson or Powell catching, the other at first base and Chris Carter on an outfield corner. Carter saw some time in left field last year, but there aren't many at-bats to go around out there right now with the presence of Taylor and Jai Miller, a recent waiver claim from the Marlins, in the corners and Matt Carson, who's started the year hitting .417, in center. Donaldson and Powell each played a game at first base during Carter's absence, but with Carter back in the lineup now, it's going to be tougher for both to see action.
The River Cats' lineup could have been even more prospect-laden than it is with Carter, Taylor and Donaldson. Corey Brown, one of the organization's top outfield prospects, started the year at Sacramento, but the addition of Miller led the A's to dispatch him back to Double-A Midland to make sure he continued seeing regular action. You may remember Brown from his torrid showing in the Arizona Fall League last year in which he hit .333 and led the league in RBIs with 28, teaming up with the gone but not forgotten Grant Desme to lead the Phoenix Desert Dogs to the AFL title game.
The Sacramento infield is set for now with Carter at first base, offseason trade acquisition Eric Sogard at second, Dallas McPherson reviving his career at third and Steven Tolleson at short. But that situation could also be thrown into flux when Adrian Cardenas returns from a thumb injury sustained in spring training sometime in the next few weeks.
"We've got lots of good problems to have," Lieppman said. "We've seen a lot of competition this year because of the improved talent at all the levels. Tolleson is a good player, so is Sogard. So we are going to have to make some decisions when Cardenas is ready. That's going to be in two or two-and-a-half weeks. We'll kind of let that one play out. Things seem to happen to create opportunities. Hopefully we won't have to force it. It's just something that will naturally take place."
• One prospect who won't be rejoining the River Cats very soon is first baseman/outfielder Sean Doolittle. The 23-year-old's season was cut short last year by tendinitis in both knees, with the left knee eventually needing surgery. He wasn't expected to be ready for spring training or even Opening Day, but Doolittle has had to go back for more physical therapy in Arizona, trying to strengthen the muscles around his knees.
"His quads weren't strong enough really to get him up and running," Lieppman said. "Unfortunately, he's had a setback. We're just going to have to take our time and hope he can get enough strength to come back and play."
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