Five keys to the River Cats’ season: Big-name prospects, the hot corner, venue and voice

The first home game in Sacramento River Cats history was a wet one, in 2000, when the return of Triple-A baseball in the region was a deluge of a good time.

Media Day for the River Cats last week was also a wet one, but the forecast calls for clear skies ahead as Sacramento prepares for its 23rd season in West Sacramento. The River Cats home opener is Tuesday, another season of promise for a franchise that has run out of outfield wall space to hang up the championship banners, including the 2019 Triple-A championship.

The team ace is Kyle Harrison, a flame-thrower who rates as the top left-handed pitching prospect in all of Minor League Baseball. He is the top prospect for the parent-club San Francisco Giants.

The third baseman is Casey Schmitt, deemed an exceptional defensive player. The roster is dotted with players who are pleased to be here — what a way to make a living, right? — but are anxious to mov to the Bay Area. Specifically, to be called up by Giants. But that roster is full, and the waiting game is part of the minor league experience.

And this: There’s a good vibe brewing with River Cats President and Chief Operating Officer Chip Maxson and his staff, a club that was purchased by the Kings in August with a commitment to affordable entertainment and a class facility.

Here are five reasons the River Cats are worth a peek this season:

Prime prospect

Harrison is the Giants’ top prospect, a powerfully built 6-foot-2 De La Salle High School of Concord graduate who throws gas with a fastball in the upper 90s and a low 80s slider. A 2020 third-round pick by the Giants, Harrison has been the most prolific strikeout artist in the minors with 343 K’s in 211.1 innings. And he’s 21 years old, the youngest on the River Cats and among the youngest in all of the Pacific Coast League.

Harrison showed glimpses of what he can do during Spring Training with the Giants, but that club has plenty of starting arms, so he will start the season in Triple-A, where he’ll get plenty of innings with the aim to gain experience and to work on consistency, with River Cats manager Dave Brundage reminding that “there’s no rush.”

“He has electric stuff, and he has all the tools,” Brundage said. “He’s got such a high ceiling, but we need to tone down the expectations, because there’s going to be some ups and downs, some bumps, some peaks and valleys. He wants to prove to the Giants that he’s ready.”

Hot corner

Schmitt is California to the core. He is a San Diego native who played at San Diego State and was drafted by the Giants in the second round of the 2020 MLB draft. Schmitt showed so much promise in Spring Training at third base (he can also play shortstop) and at the plate that Giants players, coaches and training staff tabbed him as the top newcomer to the organization with the Barney Nugent Award. Scouts see San Francisco’s third-best prospect as a potential Gold Glove Award winner. Said Giants manager Gape Kapler earlier this spring, “He’s kicked some ass in this camp.”

Roaring Ramos

Outfielder Heliot Ramos has shown power at the plate, but he’ll be the first to admit that he wants to — and needs to — cut down on his strikeouts. The Giants first-round draft pick in 2017 out of his native Puerto Rico, Ramos is as gregarious as he is fun to watch.

Ramos has been a mainstay with the River Cats, and he made his Major League debut with the Giants last season. He has played 162 games with Sacramento since making his River Cats debut in July of 2021. He belted 11 home runs a year ago. And he has a motto: “Fans can expect 100% of effort out of me all the time.”

Voice of reason

Zack Bayrouty is the new radio/streaming voice of the River Cats, and he’s as likable as he is informative and entertaining to listen to. Bayrouty takes over for longtime voice Johnny Doskow, now part of the Oakland A’s broadcast crew.

Bayrouty is a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, who is no stranger to the sport or the region. He called games for the Single-A Stockton Ports for 14 seasons and was the radio voice of the Triple-A Reno Aces the last three seasons.

“I’m so excited to do this,” he said.

The venue and vibe

Sutter Health Park remains a gem of a facility, easy to get to with plenty of parking. It’s as good of a minor league venue as there is with affordable tickets, a team store that includes everything from hats to hoodies and jerseys. The concourse is dotted with food options. And drink options.

The 75-game home schedule includes a host of giveaways and promotions, including $2 hot dogs and ice cream on Tuesdays; Wet Nose Wednesday, where dogs can join their owners for game action from the Toyota Home Run Hill; Thirsty Thursday with beer specials; fireworks after every Saturday game; and Sunday Funday, where kids can get a pregame autograph and then run the bases after the game for fun.

For more on the River Cats, tickets and game-day promotions, click here.