These are not the Sacramento River Cats of old. The franchise that has run roughshod over the Pacific Coast League since 2000 has struggled mightily out of the gate.
Sacramento is currently 15-16, just 4-11 on the road. That might not seem that bad, but a quick glance at the stats shows the River Cats are lucky to be that close to the .500 mark.
They have been outscored 179-165 on the season. Sacramento's 17 home runs are by far the fewest in the PCL, while the Cats' pitching staff has allowed 30 homers, tied for the fourth most. A 5.47 team ERA is the third worst in the league.
Baseball America only rates two players on the current roster as prospects, while MLB.com has no River Cats in its top 20 prospects. Oakland's farm system has dropped off in recent seasons as most of the A's top prospects are now playing in the Majors.
That lack of prospect talent, combined with what have so far been an ineffective group of veterans, have left Sacramento looking like a shadow of its former self so far. The good news for the River Cats is that no one is running away with the revamped Pacific North Division; they are only 1.5 games out of first place.
Sacramento and Albuquerque will begin a four-game series Tuesday at 6:35 p.m. at Isotopes Park. The Isotopes currently sport an identical record and were just swept by the Fresno Grizzlies.
It should be an intriguing matchup of two teams desperately in need of a turnaround. Click on the slideshow for a more in-depth look at the River Cats.
River Cats rotation
Rotation: The only member of the Sacramento starting staff that will not pitch in this series is the most familiar to Isotopes fans. Josh Lindblom, pictured, was with Albuquerque in 2010 and 2011. He has struggled (1-3, 7.64 ERA) for the River Cats this season.
Tuesday's series opener will fall to right-hander Arnold Leon (2-1, 4.34). For more on him, check out Prospect to Watch below.
Right-hander Marcus Walden (0-1, 6.23) gets the nod Wednesday. He was claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays last month.
Another right-hander, Sean Murphy (2-3, 5.77) will start Thursday. Murphy was a 33rd-round draft pick in 2010 out of Keystone College in Pennsylvania.
Right-hander Zach Neal (1-1, 4.68) starts Friday's finale. Neal was originally drafted in the 17th round by the Marlins in 2010 out of Sam Houston State. He signed with the A's organization as a free agent this past offseason.
River Cats bullpen
Bullpen: Much like their compatriots in the rotation, the Cats' relievers have had a tough season. Evan Scribner, pictured, leads the team with four saves, but also sports an ugly 6.23 ERA in eight games.
Another former Isotope, Fernando Nieve, has three saves, but his ERA of 10.03 is the worst on the team. He has been smashed for 25 hits in 11.2 innings.
The best reliever ERA-wise is Fernando Rodriguez (1-0, 0.79), who has been assigned to Sacramento after earlier appearing in a rehab assignment. The former Astro missed all of 2013 following Tommy John surgery.
The only lefty in the bullpen is former Philly Joe Savery (4-0, 4.66, 1 save). He pitched well (2-0, 3.15) in Philadelphia last season.
Another ex-big-leaguer of note is former Astro Philip Humber (1-0, 3.07). He has 18 strikeouts in 14.2 innings, but has also walked 10 batters.
River Cats lineup
Lineup: As noted in the introduction, Sacramento has hit the fewest home runs in the league despite having some players with power in their backgrounds. One of those is first baseman Nate Freiman (.243/.320/.423, 3 HR, 24 RBI), pictured, who spent all of last season in Oakland as a Rule 5 Draft pick. The Athletics wanted him to get more playing time, so he was demoted this year.
Joining him on the infield are second baseman Jose Martinez (.236/.360/.303, HR, 12 RBI), shortstop Tyler Ladendorf (.356/.472/.494, 18 RBI) and third basmean Alden Carrithers (.330/.445/.409, HR, 14 RBI).
The River Cats miss injured catcher Stephen Vogt (5-for-20 in five games). Ryan Ortiz (.228/.429/.298, 5 RBI), a good defender who does not hit much, has seen the bulk of the playing time in his absence.
In the outfield is longtime Sacramento fixture Michael Taylor (.264/.379/.529, 4 HR, 14 RBI), who unfortunately lost his spot on the 40-man roster this year. Shane Peterson (.291/.376/.402, 2 HR, 9 RBI), Jake Goebbert (.280/.376/.402, 5 HR, 22 RBI) and the struggling Kent Matthes (.208/.279/.287, HR, 12 RBI) round out the outfield-designated hitter mix.
River Cats prospect
Prospect to watch: Leon, pictured at right from his time with Team Mexico in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, is one of only two River Cats to crack Baseball America's list of top 30 A's prospects. He sits at No. 21 this season, while aforementioned outfielder Michael Taylor is No. 27.
As for Leon, the right-hander converted from starter to reliever and back to starter again last season, splitting time between Sacramento and Midland. He was 9-8 with a 4.13 ERA in 24 starts and one relief appearance.
This season Leon has had his ups and downs. He has done a good job of keeping the ball down, as only one of the 34 hits he has allowed this season has cleared the fences.
Leon is not overpowering, striking out 22 batters in 29 innings. His fastball sits around 92-93 mph. Leon's best secondary pitch is his changeup, while his slider and curveball are inconsistent.
The River Cats have started Leon four times at home this season and only twice on the road. In those road games Leon has allowed seven runs in 7.1 innings, taking a loss at Salt Lake on April 3 and a no-decision at Las Vegas on April 8.
River Cats outlook
Outlook: As the introduction said, the River Cats have been in a funk this season, especially on the road. They just took it on the chin in El Paso, suffering a sweep at the hands of the Chihuahuas.
Sacramento will get a boost from the arrival of outfielder Nick Buss, pictured. The former Isotope was designated for assignment by the Dodgers last week so right-hander Red Patterson could be added to the 40-man roster. Buss was then claimed by the Athletics on waivers and will be assigned to the River Cats.
It should certainly make for an interesting, and strange, story for Buss to be facing his fellow teammates so quickly. The same thing happened to Trayvon Robinson when the Dodgers traded him to the Mariners in 2011 and he was sent to Tacoma, with the Rainiers visiting Albuquerque just days later.
As for the series, both the Cats and Isotopes are reeling. The one thing Sacramento does not have to combat Albuquerque's lefty-heavy lineup is quality left-handed pitching. The aforementioned Joe Savery is not just the lone southpaw in the bullpen, he is the only one on the entire staff.
If the Isotopes' big left-handed bats — Joc Pederson, Mike Baxter, Clint Robinson — can take advantage, it should be an easier turnaround for Albuquerque. Of course, that all assumes that the Dodgers stop raiding the pitching staff long enough for that group to stabilize.