Updated: May 23, 2014
raley field

Rumor has it that the Sacramento River Cats Triple-A minor league team will change its major league affiliation to the San Francisco Giants when its contract with the Oakland A’s expires after the current season. I realize this will probably please SF Giant fans in the Sacramento area, who by far outnumber A’s fans, but I, for one, hope this change doesn’t happen. Call me a front-runner, but I enjoy following a winner and the way the River Cats play the game. This is likely to change if the Sacramento team decides to affiliate with the Giants.

Hustlin' Eric Byrnes

Hustlin’ Eric Byrnes

Guess I’ve been spoiled given the River Cats success in Sacramento since the franchise moved there from Vancouver in 2000. The team has won 11 division titles in their 14 years of existence, including four PCL championships. They won back-to-back Triple-A championships in 2007-2008. During their years in Sacramento, the Cats have either led, or been close to the top, in minor league baseball attendance. In 2012, Forbes listed the River Cats as the most valuable team in all of Minor League Baseball.

Several successful major league players came up through the River Cats, including Barry Zito, Ariel Prieto, Mark Ellis, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Nick Swisher, Eric Byrnes, Carlos Pena, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Rich Harden, Aaron Harang, Bobby Crosby (ROY, 2004), Huston Street (ROY, 2005), Kurt Suzuki, Chris Denorfia, Andrew Bailey (ROY, 2009), Josh Donaldson, Brett Anderson, Dan Straily, and Sonny Gray.

The Cats success story, in my view, can be traced to A’s general manager, Billy Beane, whose baseball life was chronicled in the Movie, Moneyball. Beane’s application of statistical analysis (sabermetrics) to player evaluation revolutionized how the A’s assessed player talent. Using sabermetrics, the A’s found value in players other teams often shunned, enabling them to field competitive teams with a meager payroll.

Billy "Moneyball" Beane

Billy “Moneyball” Beane

Figuring they were undervalued, Beane prioritized high school players in the MLB draft and current major league players lacking slugging numbers but good at getting on base and paying solid defense. He values hitters with plate discipline. Other teams have copied the Beane method, but he remains to this day the most consistently successful general manager using sabermetric analysis.

Beane’s formula also leads him to trade star players when their success on the field produces bloated salary demands. His preference is to trade these players for young prospects who fit his priorities. With his keen eye for talent, Beane has been able to keep the A’s competitive with among the lowest payrolls in major league baseball while stocking the farm system with talented prospects, many of whom go on to become productive major leaguers. The net result is that both the A’s and the River Cats have been remarkably successful.

The Beane formula has also shown well in the way River Cats play the game. Since most of the Cats have not been recipients of gigantic signing bonuses, the team has been free of the prima donna sorts who believe they are entitled to adulation, even before their performance warrants it. Because of the frequent turnover in A’s players, opportunities for promotion from the farm system are greater than for other clubs. I think this makes players on the Cats extra motivated to play hard, hustle, run hard on all balls in play, sharpen their defensive skills, and execute the finer points of the game, like moving runners along, backing up plays, and being smart on the base paths—all attributes valued by the A’s management. In my several years as a season ticket holder, I never saw a River Cats player stand and admire a home run or loaf on a pop up. Poor execution has been a rarity.

From watching them play over their 14 years, I get a sense that prospects that play for the River Cats realize that natural ability alone is not enough to become a major leaguer. One has to play hard all the time and never stop trying to improve. Most Cats players I’ve watched approach the game this way; if you want an analogy, like a team of Hunter Pences. They appear to respect the game and understand that playing baseball for a living is a privilege few get to experience. This attitude has been put on display at Raley Field throughout the Billy Beane era.

Susan Savage, CEO River Cats

Susan Savage, CEO River Cats

So does this mean these things that attract me and many other fans to the River Cats will end if the team switches affiliations to the Giants? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect they might. While the Fresno Grizzlies have developed talented players who have enriched the Giants (e.g., Lincecum, Cain, Wilson, Baumgartner, Romo, Posey and Belt), their fertilization of the Giants has been less steady and consistent, as has been the Grizzlies play on the field. They have not won a division crown since the River Cats came to Sacramento. At the least, a Grizzlies affiliation would likely mean no more exciting pennant races and no division playoffs at Raley Field.

The consistent excellence of the River Cats derives from the A’s preference for developing players in their farm system. The Giants pattern has been to add players through trades and free agent signings. Unlike the A’s, the Giants rarely trade current players for prospects to stock their minor league system; on the contrary, they often trade prospects for players ready to play in the majors now. The Giants also don’t seem to mind rewarding star players with multi-year contracts at sky high salaries. While this formula has produced World Series wins, it has at the same time depleted their minor league affiliates. It has also provided fewer opportunities for their minor leaguers to make the Giants roster, a message I believe is not lost on players coming up through the farm system.

So, here’s hoping River Cats CEO, Susan Savage, doesn’t switch affiliation to the San Francisco Giants. Undoubtedly the Giants can offer more money (and probably are), but this shouldn’t be about money. The A’s have been good for the Cats, as the Cats have been for the A’s. Isn’t there a place for loyalty in professional baseball, or has the almighty dollar perverted everything that was once good about the game? The River Cats have been a source of great community pride. Thousands of fans like me deeply appreciate the winning baseball Cats players have displayed over these 14 years.   There’s good reason to believe this will not continue with a Giants affiliation. I think founding River Cats owner Art Savage would have agreed.