Since David Wright has succumbed to injury problems the past few years, the Mets have struggled to field an adequate replacement at third base. They’ve tried 12 different players at the hot corner besides their captain and no one has come close to replacing Wright’s production on both sides of the game.
In seven of the eight games here in July, the Mets have used T.J. Rivera at the hot corner. Rivera has been an afterthought through much of his professional career, starting from not even being drafted going through the Mets using Wilmer Flores, who simply cannot play the position defensively, for 39 games instead of Rivera at third this season.
But ever since joining the Mets organization, the one thing that he’s been able to do is hit. In 630 games in the minors, Rivera posted a .324 AVG and he even topped the .300 mark while playing in tough hitter parks in Brooklyn (.326) and Savannah (.333). Yet because he wasn’t highly-regarded entering the system, Rivera never made a top 10 list of Mets prospects by Baseball America.
He wasn’t even on the 40-man roster coming into last year and had to wait for others to get first crack before the Mets finally gave him his opportunity. And what did he do when given a chance? Rivera went out and hit .333 with an .821 OPS. The fanbase has been quick to take a liking to the Bronx native, embracing his underdog status as much as his steady bat.
But something was holding the Mets back from doing the same. And that something was the confusion over where to play Rivera defensively. In the minors, he played 266 games at 2B, 149 at 3B, 139 at SS, 35 at 1B and 10 in the OF. This year in the World Baseball Classic, Rivera played first base for Puerto Rico. But the Mets were set at first, with Lucas Duda and Flores at the major league level and top prospect Dominic Smith in Triple-A. When Duda went down with an injury, they opted to move Jay Bruce in from the outfield.
From a management team that has never placed a top priority on defense – whether that was playing Duda in the outfield or Flores at shortstop – the hesitation to let Rivera get innings at third was a bit of a head scratcher. He played 49 innings at third base in 2016 and it appeared that the organization was horrified by what it saw.
And in those 49 innings, Rivera was not good.
It’s a tiny sample, one that’s hardly worth mentioning. But apparently the Mets’ scouts were not impressed with his work at the hot corner in the minors and those 49 innings only confirmed that opinion. There were 11 balls hit in his zone and he only fielded six of them. That led to a comically bad (-48.9) UZR/150.
With seven games at third base here in July, Rivera’s innings total at the hot corner this year is up to 156.2, which is still a tiny sample. The good news is that he’s fielded 27 of the 35 balls hit in his zone, which is a very good rate. The bad news is he hasn’t distinguished himself turning the double play and he’s made three errors, one fielding and two throwing. That combination has led to a (-6.5) UZR/150.
Again, we have to stress that we’re not dealing with a large enough sample to make informed conclusions. But while not good in any sense, that (-6.5) number is a marked improvement over what he did a year ago in an even smaller sample and one that you could live with if the player performed well offensively. Still, the hope would be that extended reps at the position would see that number improve going forward. Currently, he’s working on a 54.1 inning errorless streak at third base, meaning he made three errors in his first 102.1 innings at the hot corner.
Much like Flores before him, Rivera is playing third base because of his bat. Saturday night, he extended his hitting streak to 10 games. In that span, Rivera has a .444/.500/.806 line. Yes, the hits are falling in for him right now. But seven of his 16 hits in this span have gone for extra-bases, including 3 HR. Plus he has 3 BB and 3 Ks in this span. Never known for his willingness to take a walk, Rivera producing as many walks as strikeouts is a very nice thing to see.
Overall, Rivera has a .304/350/.464 line with the Mets here in 2017. The average NL third baseman has a .780 OPS. If Rivera could hit like this over an entire year, he would be an above-average offensive third baseman. Of course, Rivera has played other positions besides third base this year and we’re also looking at his numbers while in the middle of a hot streak. It’s very possible we look at these numbers two weeks from now and they show something not so rosy.
Still, this is a guy who has hit at every level and in parts of two seasons in the majors has an .817 OPS in 311 PA. In the here and now there’s no reason not to keep playing him at third. He’s thumping the ball on offense and he appears to be settling in some on defense. As long as Neil Walker remains sidelined, Rivera should get an extended look at third base.
What the Mets do when Walker returns will be interesting to watch. Asdrubal Cabrera has done his best hitting of the year since being activated from the DL, notching a .788 OPS in his last 16 games. But he’s been vocal about not wanting to play 3B. Jose Reyes is batting .311 with a .975 OPS in 99 PA since moving to SS on June 13, so it’s unlikely the Mets will be eager to move Cabrera back to short. Walker has played some 3B in his career so that may be the ultimate move for the Mets.
Barring a trade, which is still a possibility, it appears Rivera will get the short end of the stick. But hopefully the Mets will see enough from Rivera at third base until Walker returns to consider him for the position in 2018.
In a way, it’s reminiscent of Wayne Garrett back in the 1970s. Garrett did not hit for a good AVG and did not have great over the fence power. But his overall production at third base was acceptable. But the Mets constantly tried to upgrade from him, costing themselves Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan in the process. If they had just taken what Garrett gave them, they would have been better off in the long run.
It looks like Rivera will be acceptable at third base. Maybe a little better than average offensively and a little worse than average defensively. Ideally, you’d like to upgrade from average if possible. But the Mets have bigger problems than an average position player at minimum wage. If Rivera proves competent defensively at third base, that would free the Mets to spend money elsewhere this offseason.