River Cats look to jump ship

Wikipedia commons

Late Saturday, San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser, dropped a bit of a bombshell:

The River Cats have been affiliated with Oakland since 2000, when the organization moved south from Vancouver and changed its name from the Canadians to the River Cats. In that time, the AAA squad has seen remarkable success, winning its Pacific Coast League division every year except 2002, 2006, and 2013.

Sacramento also draws remarkably good crowds, averaging above five figures for the organization's first eight seasons just west of the Sacramento River. But those numbers have dwindled recently — average crowds in the three-year stretch from 2011 to 2013 were down about 27% from the three-year stretch a decade prior.

River Cats owner Susan Savage is obviously trying to bring some of that honeymoon-period excitement back to our state's capital, and given that the majority of PCL affiliation contracts expire after the 2014 season, the time to make a move is now.

So Savage is eyeing the Giants — the one organization that, from a business perspective, might make more sense to tie her name to than the A's. If the River Cats and Giants (their affiliation with the Fresno Grizzlies also expires at the end of 2014) are both interested, there's little the A's can do to stop the switch.

Geography is a huge influence on the placement and affiliation of minor-league teams, especially for higher-level ones, for a number of good reasons. For one, it's convenient for players and teams making time-sensitive roster moves. The A's can currently call up players essentially at a moment's notice; a mid-day drive from Sacramento to the Coliseum is about as convenient as it gets.

Beyond that, the River Cats and A's both reap the benefits of the spillover from their respective fan bases. A's fans in the Bay Area want to check out the team's future and are more than willing to make their way to Raley Field to catch a game; likewise, fans in Sacramento are more likely to drive down and check out the big-league club. The A's probably a disproportionate slice of the television market share in Sacramento, too.

Of course, the MLB fan effect is magnified for the River Cats when you plug the Giants into the equation. Their fan base is bigger, there are likely more Giants fans in Sacramento to begin with, etc. — from a business perspective, it makes perfect sense.

So the question becomes this: is it worth it for Savage to make the switch to a higher-profile MLB organization, despite the fact that the on-field quality will almost certainly be lower? The current Fresno Grizzlies roster would simply flip teams, becoming the River Cats. And while San Francisco has certainly enjoyed more on-field success than Oakland over the past decade, it hasn't trickled down to Fresno — the Grizzlies have been thoroughly outplayed by the River Cats year in and year out, and the championships that the River Cats bring with them as an A's affiliate would be fewer and further between with a parent club further west.

Some seem to think that this development closes the book on an MLB franchise (namely, the A's) ever moving to Sacramento, but in my opinion, the one thing has nothing to do with the other. If MLB ever wants to move into a minor-league city, it'll happen regardless of what MiLB team plays there and who they're affiliated with. After all, the San Jose Giants, after all, have never been brought up as a major issue in the A's-to-San Jose saga; if Oakland moves south, the Single-A Giants would likely relocate to another Bay Area city. The same is true for the River Cats (not the Bay Area, necessarily) if MLB ever comes to Sacramento, so a potential affiliation switch means very little if that oft-discussed long shot ever creeps any closer to reality.

If the switch does take place, the A's would probably want to make it a full swap and grab Fresno as their new AAA affiliate. After all, it is comparable to Sacramento in terms of convenience — it would be tougher for fans to take a day trip to the valley to catch a game, but from a call-up perspective, somebody in Fresno at 9am can be in Oakland by the early afternoon, as is obviously the case with Sacramento.

That move got a boost today, as the Angels just announced a contract extension with the AAA Salt Lake bees. Los Angeles had been rumored to be interested in moving a bit closer than Utah, but clearly, that ship has sailed, making the A's a slam-dunk, logical choice for Fresno should the Giants leave them following this season.

It's unlikely anything significant will happen before the conclusion of the regular season, but losing the River Cats would certainly be a big loss for the A's organization. Sacramento could be called the premier organization in minor-league baseball; they draw big crowds, win championships, and play in a fantastic ballpark. Since 2000, the River Cats have certainly benefited from their connection to the A's, and it would be sad to see them go. Oakland fans probably aren't happy about the idea of the Giants having presences to the west, northeast, and south, either.

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