After 15 seasons as the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s, the Sacramento River Cats reached a deal Thursday to change their affiliation to the San Francisco Giants next year, citing the Giants’ popularity among area baseball fans as a key motivation.
The River Cats signed a two-year player-development contract to become the top minor-league affiliate of the Giants beginning in 2015. The team will continue to be called the River Cats and play at Raley Field but will be composed of players and field personnel from the Giants’ organization rather than the A’s.
It’s the first time the River Cats have changed their affiliation since moving to West Sacramento from Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2000. Earlier Thursday, the A’s announced an agreement to make the Nashville (Tenn.) Sounds their Triple-A affiliate beginning next season.
While the River Cats have had considerable success on the field and at the box office during their 15-year association with the A’s, team officials said a wealth of fan feedback compelled them to pursue a change when their contract with the A’s expired after the 2014 season.
River Cats President Jeff Savage said that, in survey responses and emails from fans, “one thing that has come to light is the fact that there are a lot of Giants fans in this region.”
“This is clearly what a large percentage of the Sacramento region wants to see,” he said. “So Sacramento has asked for it and we will provide it, in essence is kind of what it comes down to.”
The River Cats’ logo, uniforms and color scheme are expected to remain the same. But fans attending games next year will see some of the top prospects in the Giants’ minor-league system along with the occasional big-league player rehabbing from injury.
Whether that will draw more fans to Raley Field is unknown. The River Cats have been one of the biggest draws in minor-league baseball, leading the Pacific Coast League in attendance in eight of the last 10 seasons. The team’s average attendance has ticked upward the past two seasons from a low of 8,140 per game in 2012, but it’s still down from an average of 12,517 in 2001.
Andy Dolich, a Bay Area sports consultant and former Major League Baseball executive, said the popularity of the Giants – which has spiked with their winning two of baseball’s last four World Series – coupled with the Giants’ penchant for marketing likely will lead to improvement at the box office.
“With the footprint the Giants have built and how much larger it’s gotten, and the number of Giants fans that are part of the Sacramento marketplace, it would be hard to imagine that (River Cats) attendance would not stay solid or increase,” Dolich said.
For the Giants, having their Triple-A affiliate in their geographical backyard was important. Many team’s transactions involve calling a player up from or sending him down to Triple-A, the highest minor-league level. The Giants, who for the last 17 years have partnered with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, now will have many of their top minor-league players just 90 miles away.
“When you have so many player moves that take place between your Triple-A club and major-league team, it was just very difficult to pass up an opportunity to get that close to our Triple-A club,” Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans said.
The River Cats and the Grizzlies were two of six Pacific Coast League teams to apply last week for an affiliation switch. Player-development contracts are for two or four years, after which teams can renew with their current MLB parent club or ask permission to talk with other MLB teams about possible re-affiliation. Teams were allowed to begin those discussions Tuesday.
Evans said the Giants’ decision came down to Sacramento or Fresno and that familiarity with the Grizzlies and investment by Fresno city leaders made it “hard to leave. … But the tipping point would have to be the proximity (to Sacramento), because there are so many factors that are so comparable between the two (minor-league franchises).”
The A’s reached a four-year agreement with the former Milwaukee Brewers affiliate in Nashville, which is scheduled to open a new 10,000-seat ballpark in 2015. A’s assistant general manager David Forst said Thursday the A’s had “known for quite some time (the River Cats) weren’t interested in renewing their partnership with us, so it didn’t come as a surprise.
“It was always convenient to have them 90 miles away, but I don’t think it’s going to have any effect on our ability to develop players or move players back and forth from Triple-A,” Forst said. “I think more than anything we’re excited about Nashville.”
As the top affiliate of the A’s, who are known for having a deep minor-league system, the River Cats finished first in 11 of 15 seasons and won four Pacific Coast League titles. The Grizzlies were not so successful during their 17-year affiliation with the Giants, with five winning seasons and one first-place finish.
While performance is important, Dolich said that the chance to see future major-league players and the overall fan experience are equally essential to drawing fans to minor-league games.
“Clearly, no matter who they’re affiliated with, the River Cats’ brand has been one of the strongest in all of baseball,” Dolich said. “This, to me, just enhances it.”