Frequently asked questions about the Sacramento River Cats and the Giants

There were reports that the Sacramento River Cats might be interested in hooking up with the San Francisco Giants. Here are a few answers to clear up some of the mess.

If you haven't already, you can read the article that started it all here, by the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser.  But sources say that the Sacramento River Cats are interested in switching affiliations from the Oakland Athletics to the San Francisco Giants.  Crying, pitchforks, and the usual "The Giants are limiting the A's AGAIN" talk ensued, as did random San Jose rumors from out of nowhere.

So I'm here to try to clear up some confusion and share some information about how the minor leagues work, and just what all this rumor-mongering means.

Are the Giants trying to steal the River Cats from the A's?

No.  Well, probably not.

The Slusser article directly states that the sources come from the River Cats and the A's, not the Giants.  And that's a pretty big deal, because if a source came from the Giants, it could constitute tampering, like with free-agent players.  And the Giants are the last team that wants to upset anyone in the Commissioner's Office, considering the San Jose blue ribbon committee that must be getting exhausted just watching the speed of the Donald Sterling proceedings over in the NBA.

Wait, teams can be free agents?

Yup.  Let's talk about how MLB affiliations work in the minors.

At the end of every even-numbered season, Minor League and Major League teams begin a mad scramble, signing or continuing agreements. It's a sports version of musical chairs to see which poor slow organization gets stuck with Dodd Stadium in Norwich, CT.  (Sorry, CT Tigers fans!  Still love ya!)

A major league team will sign a "Player Development Contract" with a minor-league team at each level, agreeing to supply players for those minor league squads, but agreeing that the major-league team can control their movements.  A PDC can be for varying lengths, but it's usually for two years.  Sometimes, you may find a four-year PDC, and occasionally longer, but it's usually two.

At the end of a PDC, there is no such thing as a club option or another club option.  Teams can go and search out new affiliations as they wish.  And yes, minor-league teams can initiate the change.

A big part of the rumors is that both the A's/Sacramento and Giants/Fresno agreements are up at the end of this year.  And that's true. But so are 88 other minor-league teams, including 12 other Triple-A teams.  Of course, just like with free agent players, two teams that are already affiliated can renegotiate early, so the 90 teams will be whittled down before the end of the year.  In fact, since the end of the 2013 season, 11 extensions have already been announced.

So, do switches happen often?

Well, every year there are a few changes, but not many compared with the total number of possible changes.  For instance, in 2012, there were only 12 changes across all levels.

Are the Giants prone to changing often?

Not recently.  The Giants haven't made a change since 2004, when they changed from the Hagerstown Suns in Single-A ball to the Augusta GreenJackets.  But there were a flurry of changes between 1998 and 2004, when they changed Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A teams.

So why do affiliation changes happen?

Well, there's a few reasons.

  • New owners - After a team's purchase, new owners often like having a fresh start.  This could be new owners at either the major league or minor league level.

  • New city - There are many positives for a minor league team that is located close to its major league affiliate, for both sides.  So when a team moves, they might open up the options of having a new partner.

  • New facilities - If a minor league team gets a new stadium, and especially if the big league affiliate didn't help much, that makes them a more valuable affiliate.

  • Bad blood - Kinda like roommates, only with more money at stake.

  • Getting forced out - If a major-league team moves to town, the minor-league team has to skedaddle.

  • And, of course, changes could happen for no visible, public reason.

If you look at the Giants, you'll see these reasons throughout their recent affiliate history.

For 23 seasons, the Giants had a AA team in the Texas League based in Shreveport, Louisiana.  But for the 2003 season, they were sold to Mandalay Sports Entertainment.  They moved the team to Frisco, Texas, and decided to affiliate with the now-local Texas Rangers.  That was good, because Emperor Norton probably would've haunted the ever-loving crap out of AT&T Park if San Francisco had a farm team called Frisco.  The Giants, meanwhile, were left to affiliate with the Norwich Navigators, who became the Connecticut Defenders, who then moved and became the Richmond Flying Squirrels.  After the move, the Squirrels courted the Washington Nationals as their parent club, but nothing came of that.

At the Triple-A level, the Giants were affiliated with the Phoenix Firebirds in Triple-A from 1966 until 1997, but something changed.  That change was the Arizona Diamondbacks coming to town.  The Phoenix minor-league team was forced out.  The Phoenix Firebirds became the Tucson Rattlers, and eventually became a Diamondbacks affiliate.  But there was already a team in Tucson, the Toros ... so they got sold the rights to the city of Tucson to the former Firebirds and moved to Fresno, where they became the Grizzlies, and the Giants became affiliated with them.

Yes, the Minors are complicated when changes happen.

Okay, so that's how it works...So what's going on with Sacramento?

You've probably heard that Sacramento is a pretty good minor-league town.  Yep, it is.

Since moving to Sacramento in 2000, the River Cats have been successful, winning 11 division titles, six conference titles, four PCL titles, and two Triple-A titles.  They are successful with the fans, consistently among the minor leagues' most-attended team.  And they are successful financially, as last year Forbes ranked the River Cats the most valuable minor-league team.

And Raley Field in West Sacramento is a pretty danged nice stadium.

Oh, so no wonder the Giants would want to go to Sacramento.  Why would they want to stay in Fresno?

Well, Fresno isn't so bad, either.

The Grizzlies are consistently in the top half of PCL attendance.  Last year, the River Cats drew an average of 8.435 fans.  The Grizzlies drew 6,771, 7th in the 16-team league.  And the Grizzlies were tied for 11th in value by Forbes.  Out of 160 teams, that's not bad at all.  And Chukchansi Park is also one of the top minor league parks in terms of facilities and comfort.

The Grizzlies have only lacked on the field, winning just one division title, but that is probably more of a comment of the players supplied to them by the Giants, as opposed to the A's farm system in Sacramento.

But that's not all.  The Giants have gone through a lot with the Grizzlies, and that counts for something.

What do you mean?  Doesn't a major league team just provide players to the minor league team?

The Fresno Grizzlies have had a lot of ups and downs since coming to town.  The team has had several owners, and there were some contentious times between the Giants and Grizz, with threats of affiliation shifts.  The current ownership has fostered a strong and close relationship, however.

After the initial struggles when the new ownership took over in 2005, the Grizzlies rebranded themselves away from one of the ugliest green colors ever on a uniform to an orange and black scheme, like their parent.  The Giants became more involved with the Grizzlies, and the big league team played a few exhibition games in Fresno against the Triple-A squad.  The teams also have worked together on promotions to bring crowds to Fresno games.  The popular 2012 Championship Ring Replicas that were given away at AT&T Park were also given away at a Fresno game, prompting overnight lines for the game.  The Giants and Grizzlies repeated the promotion with the 1954 replica rings, which were given away this past weekend.

The Giants have worked hard the last few years with the Grizzlies to help them be more successful, which in turn helps the team provide a better environment for players to develop.

So, if the Giants did move, what would be in it for the Giants?

Well...not much.  At least, not directly.

Sacramento is the only Triple-A affiliate closer to the Bay Area than Fresno...but not by much.  Driving times from Triple-A would be half what it currently is.  Sacramento also has a better airport, if players need to fly out to meet the big league team faster.

There's not a big difference in facilities, as both stadiums are fairly modern (Raley Field is actually a year older).  Sacramento is a bigger market, which might open the team up to more fans, but Sacramento already has a solid Giants following.

There's also the advantage that Giants fans would be able to visit the Triple-A team more often, and a higher attendance overall, but that's more of a fan benefit and a team benefit.  The Giants don't get ticket sales, though; the River Cats do.

What's in it for the River Cats?

This is a bit unclear.  The River Cats aren't hurting for fans, so the Giants coming to town wouldn't make a big difference with new fans.  Plus, it wouldn't be out of line to assume that the River Cats' winning has contributed to their attendance.  So if they lose the strong A's farm system, it might hurt the attendance as well.

It's also not like the A's aren't a local team as well, so any added fans might be offset by a loss of A's fans coming out to Sacramento.

So why would the River Cats want to change?

One piece of speculation in the Slusser article is that the A's and River Cats are negotiating, and the Giants are being used as a bargaining chip to get a better deal from the A's.  After all, the River Cats are the perfect affiliate for the A's, so they have the power to try and demand more from the A's.

As was said, the Giants can't go into negotiations with Sacramento until after the season, though, so it's a little early to be playing these games, unless the River Cats want to encourage the A's to not let Sacramento hit the open market.  If this is the case, it's a risky ploy, but so are many free agent strategies.

This deal doesn't sound like it makes much sense, does it?

Not yet...but there's one other factor that no one is talking about.  The Grizzlies are in awful financial shape.

Despite the Forbes valuation, a Fresno television station reported that the Grizzlies owe $1.5 million to the city in rent payments on Chukchansi Park, and lost $1.3 million in 2013.  Fresno was hit hard by the recession, and hasn't recovered, and it's a smaller metropolitan area, so TV rights won't make the team a lot of money.  It's estimated that the team would break even if they see an increase in attendance of 1,000 a game from last year, but right now they're averaging only about 100 more.

In the report, the head of the Grizzlies ownership group admits he's listening to offers to sell the team over the last two years.  And with a new owner comes a lot of uncertainty about the team's future...and even its continued existence in Fresno, where it has struggled to turn a profit.  If the team moves from Fresno, Sacramento will look a lot shinier to the Giants.

If the Giants do affiliate with the River Cats, could the A's steal away the San Jose Giants as revenge?

Hahaha no.  The San Francisco Giants own a controlling interest of the San Jose Giants.  For all sorts of conflict-of-interest and logical reasons I hope I don't have to explain, San Jose won't be changing affiliations.

I'm confused.  What are you telling us?

That anything could happen.

The River Cats could get the A's to sign a PDC long before the end of the season.

The Giants could extend with the Grizzlies before the end of the season.

The Giants could go with either team after the season.

Another major-league team could jump in and convince the River Cats to switch.

Or...the Giants could go ahead and do the unlikely: purchase a controlling interest in the Fresno Grizzlies.  24 minor league teams are owned by major league teams, including the SF Giants owning the SJ Giants.  Many of these types of ownerships are based on affiliates who have geographic proximity to the major league teams.

Basically, the rumors were a great way to fill up a travel day for the Giants and the A's.  What, you wanted to talk about Angel Pagan's shoulder?

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