San Francisco Giants

River Cats, Giants extend affiliation

San Francisco Giants Hunter Pence signs autographs before his first rehab game for the Sacramento River Cats on Friday, May 8, 2015, at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
San Francisco Giants Hunter Pence signs autographs before his first rehab game for the Sacramento River Cats on Friday, May 8, 2015, at Raley Field in West Sacramento. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The San Francisco Giants and Sacramento River Cats announced a four-year extension of their affiliation agreement Sunday that will keep the Giants’ Triple-A operation in Sacramento through the 2020 season.

The timing of the announcement is significant in that the Giants have only been partnered with the River Cats for one season and were already locked into Sacramento for 2016, which they could have used to further evaluate the relationship. Instead, the River Cats will remain the Giants’ top minor-league affiliate into next decade.

"We’ve been doing this a long time and we’ve got a pretty good idea as we’ve worked with affiliates over the years of when there’s a good relationship and a good foundation for growing our interests together in the future," Giants general manager Bobby Evans said. "It really wasn’t a hard decision."

The Giants signed a two-year player development contract with the River Cats in September 2014, ending a 17-year partnership with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. Sacramento had spent its previous 15 seasons affiliated with the Oakland A’s.

Evans said Giants officials approached the River Cats about extending their contract at the MLB Winter Meetings this past December. He said it’s not uncommon for the Giants to re-up with their minor-league affiliates early in the final year of their contracts. However, the Giants have for the last decade preferred two-year deals with the affiliates, something they deviated from with this agreement.

"It’s clearly a message to Sacramento that we believe in them and enjoyed working with them and we look forward to a long partnership," Evans said.

The Giants released a written statement in which President and CEO Larry Baer said the River Cats have "proved to be an incredibly important affiliate for us. The proximity to San Francisco, the loyal fan-base in the Sacramento-region, and the passion of the ownership and front office has been nothing short of spectacular."

Having their top minor-league team 90 miles away was a significant draw for the Giants when they changed affiliates, and they took advantage of the closeness last season. Hunter Pence, Matt Cain and Joe Panik all performed rehab assignments in Sacramento, while players including Josh Osich, Kelby Tomlinson, Jarrett Parker and Trevor Brown spent part of the season with the River Cats before contributing at the major-league level.

The River Cats finished the year with a 71-73 record, snapping a streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons. But their average attendance of 9,338 was their highest since 2008 and the top figure in the Pacific Coast League. The team also reported a significant increase in merchandise sales, particularly for items that included the Giants’ logo.

"A 10.6 percent increase (over 2014 attendance) in our 16th year is very significant," said River Cats general manager Chip Maxson. "That type of spike really spoke volumes as to the fan base here in Sacramento and their excitement about the Giants coming to town."

The Giants are scheduled to physically come to Sacramento to play an exhibition game at Raley Field against the River Cats on March 30. The game is sandwiched between the Giants’ final spring training Cactus League game in Arizona and the start of their annual preseason Bay Bridge Series against the A’s, and Evans said the logistical challenges that presents further underscore the Giants’ dedication to the partnership.

"They care about our community, they want to be involved here," Maxson said. "And that speaks volumes to us."

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