T.J. Rivera just finished his third season in professional baseball for the New York Mets. Over those three years, Rivera has compiled a .304/.359/.396 offensive stat line. He has also hit 12 homeruns and has 136 RBI—not too shabby for a top-of-the-order guy who plays the middle infield.
Most people will look at this year’s numbers at St. Lucie as a regression, but it’s not the case. Rivera was called upon to hit leadoff in 2013, and it came with a fundamental offensive philosophy change. He found himself taking the first-pitch fastballs that he would normally jump all over. He found himself trying to take more pitches in order for the other hitters in the lineup to see what the pitcher had.
In his first full season of high A-ball, he was named a Florida State League mid-season All-Star. For his efforts, you won’t find him on any top prospect lists, and most Mets fans probably never heard of him. As if oblivious to those things, he just shows up to the ballpark and plays hard every day. This is what Jack Leathersich, who played with Rivera in Savannah in 2012, had to say about him in a recent exchange on Metsmerized Online:
Joe D. – You spent some time in Savannah to start last season before finishing up in St. Lucie. Tell our readers what teammate you were you most impressed with last season and why? Who really stood out to you last year and who should Met fans be really excited about?
Jack – Oh yeah, definitely T.J. Rivera – he’s the one. He’s the real deal. I’ve never been around a kid who prepares as well as he does. He just really loves the game and it seems like every time I see him he’s out on the field working on something. Rivera plays hard and is completely balls to the wall—he’ll do anything to make sure we win. He’s a great teammate and obviously a great player and everybody should be real excited about him. If he continues the great things he did last season, and I’m pretty sure that he will, he’ll be a lot of fun to watch.
More rave reviews regarding Rivera’s work ethic and style of play could be found in the 2011 Troy University Media Guide:
T.J. is a fantastic player and a guy we really like in our program. He is a guy who is committed to doing his work on a daily basis. You don’t see T.J. going through a lot of highs and lows because he is very consistent with his approach…He stays focused on getting better every day.
You won’t find Rivera on any top prospect lists because he’s not a five tool player, and he wasn’t drafted. He was signed as a free-agent out of college after spending his high school days playing at Lehman High School in the Bronx. The top prospect lists are generally reserved for the five tool players and guys drafted in the top 10 or so rounds.
However, there are things that are generally over looked when trying to determine where prospects land on these top prospect lists.
One thing is work ethic—Rivera is a hard working, blue-collar type of player. This may be a result of not being drafted and feeling that he has to outwork everyone else, and he’s probably right.
Another thing is baseball IQ—listening to Rivera speak in the video at the end of this post, and you can see that he gets it.
Finally, the eye test—can the kid play ball? There are guys who have tools that are off the charts, but they can’t put it together on the field. On the other hand, you have guys whose tools don’t jump off the page, but they squeeze every ounce of goodness out of those tools—this is the category that Rivera falls under.
Rivera is a maximizer. I think I just made up a word, but it’s true. Give me a player who can play baseball, and squeezes everything out of their talent any day of the week. Rivera would be welcome on my team with open arms.
Rivera, in my eyes, is a top 20 prospect for the New York Mets. If not for draft status, I argue he may even be top 15.
Rivera’s game is very similar to another baseball prospect that I have followed since his high school days in Joe Panik. Panik went to John Jay High School in upstate New York, and then played his college days at St. John’s University. He was touted as one of the top college shortstop prospects in the country just before the 2011 MLB Draft. The San Francisco Giants selected him in the first round that year, and many experts had him being taken much later.
Panik has a smooth left-handed swing that produces a little more pop than Rivera, and is a little more of a polished hitter, but that’s where the differences stop between the two. Panik went on to win MVP honors in the Northwest League (short season) after being drafted, but aside from that, his numbers are very similar to Rivera’s over three seasons. Panik spent 2013 in the Eastern League, where he was touted for his defense at second base, but after a dismal offensive year, many are questioning whether he is the second baseman of the future for San Francisco.
Panik is considered a top five prospect for the Giants, yet Rivera continually gets over looked on Mets lists. Even if you take out Panik’s poor offensive performance at double-A this past season, the numbers are pretty close—so why does a player like Panik get touted as a top prospect while Rivera goes virtually ignored?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Rivera enjoys being over looked and it keeps him hungry. Maybe it drives him to outwork the other prospects. Maybe it’s what eventually gets him to where he dreamed of going as a kid—the major leagues.
There is a bit of a log-jam at second base with Daniel Murphy supplanted at the major league level, Wilmer Flores behind him, and a crop of potential studs in Dilson Herrera and L.J. Mazzilli in the lower levels. But there seems to be a gaping hole at shortstop in the organization, so why not give Rivera a shot there? Can it hurt at this point?
He’s played 93 games there in three professional seasons, so it’s not like it would be learning a new position. Waiting for Gavin Cecchini to develop and be the savior is cool and all, but why put all the eggs in one basket when the basket is still at A-ball? Switch Rivera to shortstop now and let the kid continue to impress us.