Update 5/19 11:15 AM – The owners of the Fresno Grizzlies aren’t showing concern about the future of their affiliation with the Giants. They feel that the long history of Fresno being a Giants’ town, going back to the Cal League in the 40’s, will win out in the end. In addition, the Angels have renewed their PDC with the Salt Lake Bees through 2016.
Update 2:00 PM – The River Cats released a statement about their affiliation with the A’s.
“Though our player development contract with Oakland does expire after this year, we place the utmost value on our affiliation with the Athletics. This year, as in years past, we will perform an internal evaluation after the season has concluded. Our first priority has always been, and will continue to be, providing our fans with the best experience possible at Raley Field. This year is no different.”
That internal evaluation will probably include exchanging the more successful A’s-supplied rosters with the generally mediocre Giants-supplied Grizzlies rosters. While there would be a honeymoon effect, chances are it would be offset by fan response to bad play in the long term. Is it worth it? That’s for the Savage family to decide.
Art Savage and Lew Wolff were friends going back many years, when Savage was the CEO of the fledgling San Jose Sharks. Seeing an opportunity to the north, Savage decided to gamble on moving a AAA baseball club from Vancouver to Sacramento, where there hadn’t been any kind of pro baseball in decades. There was much shock and sadness when Savage died in 2009, at 58. Since then, his wife Susan and his sons have taken the reins of the River Cats, which are effectively the family business.
Despite the River Cats’ constantly excellent attendance performance (1st or 2nd in the PCL annually), the River Cats may choose to drop the A’s affiliation and shack up with the Giants after the end of the 2014 season, according to the Chronicle’s Susan Slusser. The River Cats-A’s Player Development Contract, which has been renewed with little rancor since the move from Vancouver, expires at the end of 2014. There is nothing stopping the River Cats from shopping around to hook up with a team that could provide maximum attendance and marketing opportunities, which in the NorCal market would clearly leave the Giants as the favorite, previous affiliations notwithstanding. 11 of the 16 Pacific Coast League clubs have their PDC’s ending this year, which will make the offseason a serious game of franchise musical chairs. A similar situation occurred in 2005 with few changes.
The simple fact of the matter is that attendance has dropped off from the 10k average crowds the Kitties experienced throughout much of their first decade at Raley Field, now at 8-9k per game. A trend of 10-15% drop off should be alarming for any club operator. If the move happens, it’ll be because Susan Savage felt that the best way to improve the bottom line was to work with the Giants. The orange and black fan base is extremely strong in Sacramento. Whether the team chose to keep the River Cats branding or switched to the Sacramento Giants, there would be more chances to leverage the Giants’ history and their greater ability (than the A’s) to keep stars. As Slusser noted, there’s also a chance for a more lucrative TV deal.
The Giants have every reason to pursue Sacramento if the Savage family is open to a new deal. Bringing Sacramento into the fold would further solidify the Giants’ hegemony in NorCal. It would provide a major obstacle to the A’s possibly moving to Sacramento, as the Giants could ask for unreasonable amounts of compensation if the A’s attempted such a move. The Giants would also have a better performing affiliate in a better market with a larger airport, a healthier financial outlook, and shorter driving distance for Giants farmhands.
Parent clubs pay for all player salaries and baseball operations, including coaches, for each of their affiliates. The minor league team’s responsibility is to cover marketing and ticket sales. Certainly the River Cats have been doing well, especially when compared to many of their PCL brethren. But there’s always the potential for more, so it would make sense for Susan Savage to at least take a cursory look. Sacramento is the belle of the PCL ball this offseason.
If the Giants got the River Cats and Sacramento market, that doesn’t mean that the A’s AAA affiliate could go to San Jose. While there’s no PDC for the San Jose Giants due to the team being owned by the SF Giants, there is a lease through 2018. Fresno would be the most natural alternative, although there’s a chance the Angels could also be interested as their PDC with Salt Lake City also ends this year.
One thing that could complicate matters would be if the Giants wanted to buy the River Cats from the Savage family. They already own the San Jose Giants, and they have the cash to buy any of their minor league affiliates outright if they chose to. If the Giants wanted to go that route and the Savages resisted, that would push them back into the A’s arms, since the A’s haven’t operated that way and probably won’t in the future. If the Savages wanted to cash out, there’d be no better time than this offseason. How chilling would that look? Giants surrounding the A’s on three sides: San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento. The A’s would have Oakland, Stockton, and Fresno. Talk about haves and have-nots.