T.J. Rivera and the Mets’ quest to fill third base

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.

16 comments for “T.J. Rivera and the Mets’ quest to fill third base

  1. Steevy
    July 16, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Wayne Garrett was a decent OBP guy but back in those days a third baseman was supposed to be a slugger.Oh well.As for TJ,I’m certainly rooting for him but he has a Josh Satin feel about him.

  2. holmer
    July 16, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Great analysis. I’m still not sold on him as I’m uncertain he can keep up his .800+ OPS but the more he plays the more I like him.

  3. John Fox
    July 16, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Ultimately second base might be his best position, his added range comes into play there more than at the hot corner and the throws are easier from second than third base.

    • Pal88
      July 16, 2017 at 12:17 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly…to me he is another Murphy in the making..let’s keep him at 2nd..and I mean keep him!

  4. DED
    July 16, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Small samples lead to anecdotal arguments; the Marlins won a World Series with Bobby Bonilla playing third base; the Mets went to a Series with Wilmer playing shortstop. Pedro Guerrero, third baseman for the 1993 Dodgers, which team won its division. Of course, all those guys could do something; it just wasn’t fielding.

    So it can be done, and personally I think Rivera would be better in the field than any of those three, and as much an offensive weapon as Flores.

    • July 16, 2017 at 11:18 am

      Good to see you around these parts again! As the Mets embark on their glorious comeback, hope you’ll be a regular once more.

  5. Chris F
    July 16, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I’m so sad to imagine a bench player as the heir to 3B. And Aldersons comments about defense makes me wonder how I can even care about this team I love.

    • July 16, 2017 at 11:49 am

      Rivera may be nothing more than a bench player. But at this point I don’t think we can say that for sure. I think he’s displayed enough so that pessimism shouldn’t be the default opinion.

  6. July 16, 2017 at 11:55 am

    I think the non-waiver trade deadline will come and go before Walker returns. By that point, at least one or two guys will be gone. Walker may even get moved in August.

    My 2 cents – Rivera stays in the lineup until he cools off. Keith Hernandez said it during yesterday’s game, Terry is really riding the hot hand in 2017.

  7. July 16, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    TJ can hit, period. Too bad Mets didn’t see that in Justin Turner and look what he has become. Same for Murph, who should have been resigned. Keep TJ at 3rd and let him work on his defense day in and day out, over the winter and in the spring. He would come up avg and that could be enough. Rosario at SS could offset some range issues TJ may have. Flores and his bat can go to 2b, with Dom Smith at 1b, who is known as a glove, also helping Wilmer with any range issues. That could be a helluva infield. Avg on defense, but above avg on offense, which is what Sandy is looking for.
    At catcher, don’t know what to do with TDA. He cannot throw runners out, so if he does not hit, he is of no use to the Mets. I am ready for another full chance for Plawecki even, with back up R.Rivera for another year until Tom Nido or another option comes along.The outfield will be ok with Yo, Nimmo / Lagares and Conforto – left to right. Though, would love to keep Bruce if possible.
    He has been the Met’s best player day in and day out, durable as well. Pitching is all on health, the talent and the bodies are there. Probably time to get a new training / medical staff, maybe even a new pitching coach – Frank Viola ? In closing, let TJ keep his job.
    This is a native NY hitting .300. Everyone in NY should be rooting for him !

    • LongTimeFan1
      July 16, 2017 at 1:23 pm

      Edwin E Pena,

      While the Mets were foolish non-tendering Turner for all the wrong reasons for reliable, but unspectacular infield utility player, there was nothing he did to fore shadow the type of hitter he is now.

      In fact, he had rather difficult time getting signed that offseason. It took into Februrary before he got minor league deal and spring training invite from the Dodgers who certainly weren’t expecting what they eventually got in him.

      However I agree letting Murphy go was just stupid. They knew his elevated hitting in second half and postseason was no accident – yet it didn’t change the Mets contract extension non-offer thinking.

      I don’t see the Mets giving Flores a starting job at second base in 2018. They’ve seen Flores over and over defensively year after year and he still sucks. He’s just inherently too slow in every way and his long throwing action is real problem.

      I think first base is the best position for him where he does the least harm, but Dominic Smith is the heir. Flores has the power for first base but not the opportunity to start long term.

      If Mets don’t trade Flores, I think he’ll remain in his current utility role But there may be log jam.

      If David Wright returns it’s likely in utility role. .

      Also, I think Mets will retain Reyes to be super utility or slide over to start at second. Reyes has finally found his groove again and is looking good – and will be mentor to Rosario and overall vet presence.

      They could also exercise team option on Cabrera or try to work out deal for Walker who would be amenable to playing third, second and even some first. Mets need multiple veterans and clubhouse leaders and Walker fits that mold especially in the absence of David Wright.

      Walker’s contract demands/market value may also decrease given his injury problems the past two seasons making him more affordable and perhaps willing to sign for two years.

      There’s also Gavin Cecchini waiting in the wings for whatever role the Mets require including starter, platoon, utility.

      So would the defensively challenged Flores usurp other options starting at second base? And become average defender? – I’m skeptical even with the Mets preference for offense. His degree of defensive liability – his tools – are just too high although in a choice between short, third, or second, Mets would choose second base for him.

  8. Alex
    July 16, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    Cabrera is a goner. Walker is probably staying. Duda and Reed will probably be traded too. TJ can stay on third as his tryout for 2018 and maybe play a little first base. Any chance they trade Bruce and Blevins?

  9. Jimmy P
    July 16, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    I think they need to acquire a real player for 3B next season. I don’t believe in Rivera personally, though I think he’s a bench guy.

    First issue: resolve the David Wright situation.

    Also, increase payroll.

  10. TexasGusCC
    July 17, 2017 at 12:04 am

    The biggest problem with Flores’ defense was that he doesn’t care about it. He worked hard in 2015 as a shortstop and showed improvement in the second half. I can’t see that same effort at third base. If TJ is willing to put in the work, he deserves a chance. The next best third base prospect offensively is Jeff McNeil and he’s trying to come back from injury.

    Further, if this team’s pitching would all be healthy and a new skipper that knows how to read and protect a pitcher is appointed, the lineup Edwin Pena has will suffice.

    I would trade Walker, Cabrera, Reed, Bruce, and Duda. The only possibility of an expiring contract that I would keep is Granderson as he truly is the glue of this team and would be an amazing manager should he chose to not go into the Players Association. But, if a good deal comes along, take it and resign him in November.

    An infield next year of Rivera, Rosario, Flores, Smith, Cecchini and Reyes should be solid. This would be a talented infield and good enough defensively, but both Rivera and Flores have work to do. Should Flores not show interest at working at his craft, give it to Cecchini and wait for Guillorme. [Cecchini was hurt early on and may not have sufficiently recovered because in all his previous stops he has shown the ability to hit and shouldn’t be ruled out next year.] The only problem is catcher and it is once again time to see Plawecki full time.

  11. Metsense
    July 17, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Right now, Rivera is the best third baseman on the team and should play over Flores and Reyes. If he maintains his above average production for the remainder of the season then he should become 2018 a starting consideration but third is a position that power should come from with Bruce, Duda and Granderson possibly gone. TJ seems to fit better as a second baseman.

    • Jimmy P
      July 17, 2017 at 8:33 am

      Exactly this. In addition, tired of the poor defense for this Mets team. I’d love to see a 3B who isn’t clearly horrible at the position. Rivera doesn’t have the glove.

      But, yes, let’s see what he can do.

      My gut is that his poor plate discipline will be his Achilles heel. The lack of power, speed, glove makes him a BA-only guy. One who doesn’t walk much. There’s a lot of strikes against him. But if he hits .330 all is forgiven.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: