2012 Dodgers in Review #6: 1B/OF Juan Rivera

.244/.286/.375 339pa 9hr -0.8 fWAR D-

2012 in brief: “RBI machine” somehow underwhelmed even the incredibly low expectations we had for him.

2013 status: Dodgers hold $500k buyout of $4m team option which is unlikely to be picked up… we hope.

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When the Dodgers committed millions towards bringing back Juan Rivera, a player who was awful enough in 2011 to get DFA’d by Toronto and had one good month the entire season, we were, oh, let’s say, “unhappy”:

While I’ve said that I’m okay with Rivera on this club as a OF/1B platoon bat against lefties, no one pays that much for someone to be a backup. That means that Rivera is almost certainly going to be your starting left fielder, and that pushes Jerry Sands to AAA unless there’s an unlikely Andre Ethier trade in the works. That’s a guy who didn’t even make Keith Law’s top 50 free agents list and who had a total 2011 OPS of .701, worse than Jamey Carroll and Casey Blake‘s marks last year. While it’s true that he was far better with the Dodgers than he was in Toronto, that’s hardly a high barrier to clear, and it appears that once again, the Dodgers have been sucked in by a favorable first impression that the new acquisition was unable to maintain. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Rod Barajas.)

Rivera’s first 31 games with Dodgers
115 PA  .327/.365/.481 .846 OPS  .364 BABIP

Rivera’s second 31 games with Dodgers
131 PA .226/.305/.339 .664 OPS .240 BABIP

His true talent level is probably somewhere in between, but unfortunately that’s not what you want from a starting corner outfielder or someone you’re paying nearly $5m to. Did anyone really think that you absolutely had to lock up Rivera during the exclusive negotiating period before a line of other teams drove dump trucks full of cash to his house? There’s this narrative going around that Rivera was some sort of “savior” or “RBI machine”, and while his contributions were welcomed, the facts just don’t fit that story.

If I was wrong about anything, it was saying that his “true talent level was somewhere in between”, because he matched that .664 OPS almost exactly with a .661 mark this year. And start he did, on Opening Day and in 15 of the first 18 games, beginning the season as the primary left fielder, just as we’d all feared. You know, we talk a lot about how worried we were about first and third base headed into the season, but it can’t be understated how much of a mess left field was when the best option to start the year was Rivera.

#RBImachine jokes aside, Rivera was hitting only .247/.276/.358 on May 8 when he fell to the most Dodger of injuries, a pulled hamstring. He returned in June, starting 19 games as one of the few healthy players remaining at that point and hit a respectable .278/.325/.347, with a particular highlight coming via a tie-breaking three-run homer against the Angels on June 12:

Tonight’s hero? None other than the much-maligned Juan Rivera, of course. And why not? He did little before being injured, he missed a good chunk of the season, has done little since returning, so in the new reality that is the 2012 Dodgers, it makes all the sense in the world that he’d be the star of the game – it’s basically his turn, after all.

Remember when the season was still full of hope and anything could happen? Seems so long ago now. As the season progressed, Rivera’s role continued to change. For most of July & August, Rivera rarely saw time in the outfield, becoming almost exclusively a platoon first baseman as James Loney continued to struggle and Shane Victorino took over in left. Not that it helped; between July 1 and the arrival of Adrian Gonzalez in late August, Rivera hit only .207/.248/.355, poor enough that when added with his lousy defense it actually made us prefer having Loney in the lineup.

Once Gonzalez took over first base, Rivera’s role became extremely limited, spending the last six weeks of the season mainly coming off the bench and occasionally getting a start in left when Victorino was needed to cover for Matt Kemp in center field. Though I can’t seem to find the link right now, there were grumblings – laughable, from my perspective – that Rivera was privately unhappy with his new role.

All told, Rivera’s year was incredibly poor, with a .282 wOBA that was only just barely better than middle infielders like Brandon Crawford & Alexi Casilla, yet without the plus defense at important positions that those players provided. The sad part is, this absolutely could have been predicted – and was, not just by me – prior to the season. Signing Rivera was a waste of money and a roster spot from the day it happened, and it didn’t have to be that way.

Rivera’s 2013 team option will almost certainly be declined, and hopefully that’s the last we’ll see of him. What’s scary, however, is that the team badly needs a righty-swinging corner outfielder to help spot for Ethier & Carl Crawford in 2013, and there’s not really anyone on the current roster who can back up Gonzalez at first base. Were Rivera not awful, it’s a role perfectly crafted for him. Can Ned Colletti resist the temptation?

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Next up! Mark Ellis got hurt while I wrote this!

A New Hero Every Night: Juan Rivera Edition

Andre Ethier, walking tall

For seven innings, most of the people I know watching tonight’s Dodgers/Angels matchup were playing a rousing rendition of “why does Adam Kennedy exist, and I just mean on this planet, not even in baseball,” and we may yet get back to that tomorrow. Yet in the span of two pitches over about 90 seconds in the eighth inning, we were reminded once again why whatever it is that’s driving this club to continue to find news ways to win just can’t ever be counted out.

Tonight’s hero? None other than the much-maligned Juan Rivera, of course. And why not? He did little before being injured, he missed a good chunk of the season, has done little since returning, so in the new reality that is the 2012 Dodgers, it makes all the sense in the world that he’d be the star of the game – it’s basically his turn, after all.

Entering that eighth inning, the Dodgers looked to be slowly circling the drain against surprisingly effective journeyman Jerome Williams, having collected just four singles – three of which had come consecutively in the fourth inning, driving in the first Dodger run. Thanks to some hilariously bad defense by Kennedy with some help from Dee Gordon, the Dodgers had allowed two unearned runs, and as Williams set down two of the first three hitters on groundouts, little seemed likely to change. Then Gordon stole second, his third theft of the night. (He was… probably safe. Let’s go with that.) A.J. Ellis walked, because that’s what A.J. Ellis does. Andre Ethier stroked a single to drive in Gordon and tie the game…

…and then Rivera stepped up and drove Williams’ first pitch into the left field bleachers, breaking the tie and putting the Dodgers up 5-2. What had been a sadly depressing outing against the local rivals instantly turned into a raucous Dodger Stadium; Kenley Jansen struck out two to finish it off. I’ve almost run out of ways to describe how this team continues to find ways to win, and win they have: they’re the first team in baseball to reach 40 victories.

Dodgers Recall Juan Rivera (meh), Shawn Tolleson (yay!)

Photo from Jon SooHoo at http://dodgersphotog.mlblogs.com/2012/03/30/33012-something-current-lad-photo-gallery-vs-milwaukee-brewers-photography-by-jon-soohoolos-angeles-dodgers/

So much for waiting for the game thread, because the Dodgers have made two roster moves this afternoon, one very much foreseen, one not at all so.

As expected, Juan Rivera was activated off the disabled list this afternoon, with Scott Van Slyke sent down to Albuquerque. I have absolutely no problem with seeing Van Slyke go, because despite a great moment or two, he was clearly not ready to be in the bigs and would be best served by more regular play in the minors. As for Rivera… well, I’d like to say that I’m excited to see him back in the mix, but it’s hard to see how it’s helpful. My feelings on the “#RBImachine” narrative are well-known – he was lousy for five of six months in 2011, and he was pretty bad in the first month of 2012 – and my main worry here is that as another righty corner outfielder, he’s just going to take away at-bats that Alex Castellanos needs to be getting. My hope is that Rivera’s role is mainly that of James Loney‘s caddy against lefty pitching and occasional pinch-hitter; otherwise, I’m not sure how he helps. He’s replacing Loney in the lineup today at first base, though against a righty pitcher, which shows just how far Loney has fallen in Don Mattingly’s eyes – it’s the second time in a week this has happened.

But it’s the second, completely-out-of-nowhere move which is far more interesting. Javy Guerra has been placed on the DL right knee inflammation, and that means we’ll get our long-awaited first look at Shawn Tolleson. (Matt Guerrier was pushed to the 60-day DL to make room for Tolleson on the 40-man roster.) Guerra struggled in his most recent outing on Saturday against Colorado, allowing two hits & a walk in just 0.1 inning, but we had seen no indication that he might be injured. Tolleson, meanwhile, joins the club with an absolutely ridiculous track record, having struck out 34 against just 5 walks for Chattanooga & Albuquerque this year, and with a 178/28 K/BB across 120 minor league innings over parts of three seasons. He got off to a briefly rough start upon his promotion to ABQ, but has an amazing 15/1 K/BB in eight AAA games. Frankly, I’ve been dying to see him for some time, and the thought of him along with Kenley Jansen & Josh Lindblom in the bullpen – and yes, Guerra belongs in that group as well, when healthy, as does Scott Elbert, who has been very good – really makes you salivate at the future of the young bullpen arms in this organization.

Chris Jackson of the Examiner notes that it’s probably not likely for Tolleson to reach Philadelphia for the game tonight, noting the Isotopes are in Texas (there’s also terrible weather in the east right now), though I suppose we don’t know exactly when Tolleson received the news; it’s very possible that he found out last night and has been traveling today. Either way, this is fantastic news, especially on a day in which Clayton Kershaw – a friend and teammate of Tolleson since their Texas childhood – starts against the Phillies.

Dodgers Facing Roster Choices as Injured Players Return

At some point before Clayton Kershaw throws the first pitch of tonight’s game against the Astros at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers are expected to activate Jerry Hairston off the disabled list, since the veteran has reported no trouble with his sore hamstring in two rehab games for Albuquerque. On Sunday & Monday, Matt Kemp & Juan Rivera are expected to begin rehab stints of their own for the Isotopes, with Kemp scheduled to return to the Dodgers on Tuesday against Milwaukee and Rivera, healing far ahead of schedule, potentially returning later in the week. In addition, while we haven’t heard any news about a possible rehab stint for Juan Uribe, the news on his injured wrist is positive, as he’s been cleared to resume baseball activities and is eligible to return on Tuesday as well.

All of a sudden, the walking wounded are beginning to heal, and the Dodgers are going to have some roster decisions to make. If it was as simple as sending down those who were recalled to take the four spots in the first place, then the Dodgers would be bidding farewell to Justin Sellers (for Hairston), Jerry Sands (for Kemp), Elian Herrera (for Uribe), and Scott Van Slyke (for Rivera).

Of course, rarely is it ever that simple, for much has changed since they left, particularly in the middle infield. Mark Ellis is now lost until July due to his leg surgery, Dee Gordon probably would have been back in the minors by now if the injury situation hadn’t destroyed all roster flexibility, and Sellers may have his own injury concerns after being scratched from Wednesday’s lineup with leg numbness. That means the club that these veterans are returning to has no obvious second baseman, a shortstop who may not be up to the task, and could be without the main backup at both positions.

But let’s start with the obvious moves first. When Kemp & Rivera are both back, Van Slyke & Sands are each going back down. Van Slyke’s pinch-hit homer aside, neither has done a whole lot in limited time and neither is served better by riding the bench in the bigs than playing every day in the minors. I’m hardly Rivera’s biggest fan, but he’ll provide the righty alternative at first base that James Loney sorely needs and fit in with Bobby Abreu & Tony Gwynn into a left-field trio that could actually be productive if used properly.

For Hairston, well, you’ve got some infield decisions to make, and that depends in large part on Sellers. If Sellers goes to the disabled list, then he’s an easy swap for Hairston, though that comes with the downside of having to rely on Gordon (who may not be ready) and Hairston (who looked awful there in camp) at shortstop. That’d leave you with some combination of Hairston & Adam Kennedy at third and Ivan De Jesus & Herrera at second, with some mixing between the two groups. When Uribe returns, De Jesus would almost certainly be farmed out, since Herrera has played surprisingly well in his short time with the team.

If Sellers can avoid the DL, De Jesus would go down today for Hairston, probably leaving Herrera as the primary second baseman. When Uribe returns, you could send down Herrera (if you need to keep Sellers for shortstop or if he can’t keep up his hot start), or even Gordon, if he’s still struggling.

Honestly, I’d really like to see what happens if De Jesus would ever be given a real shot at every day play, and the absence of Ellis would seem to be a prime opportunity for that. But there seems to be almost no route for that to happen, not with the presence of at least five others who can spot at second and the organization’s complete reluctance to play him, calling him up only after squeezing the non-roster Herrera onto the 40-man.

Much depends on Sellers’ health, Gordon’s play, and whether this club can actually get through a full week without having to deal with another injury. But there’s always a bright side: the more healthy players you have, the less chance of having to see Aaron Miles again.

Will the Second Wild Card Hurt the Dodgers More Than It Helps?


If we learned anything from last night’s 2-1 loss to the Giants – other than that Don Mattingly needs to be smacked in the nose with a rolled-up newspaper like a bad dog every time he tries to bunt – it’s that despite all the hysteria over Javy Guerra lately, the bullpen is not this team’s problem. It’s the offense. The Dodgers weren’t facing Matt Cain, or Madison Bumgarner, or Tim Lincecum. They were facing retread Ryan Vogelsong, and the best they could manage was a single run.

This isn’t a surprise, of course. We knew all winter that this team was going to struggle to score runs beyond Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, and that was without even knowing what a nice find A.J. Ellis would be. But you know, I was okay with that. I’d looked at 2012 as a transitional year, one which would be about treading water while the new ownership group could get situated and begin to right some of the wrongs of the McCourt era next winter. Feeling that the team probably wouldn’t be championship material, I never thought that it made a lot of sense to mortgage the future to try to make a quick impact on a roster that probably didn’t have the horses to get it done.

But now the Dodgers are off to a hot start that will keep them in contention for the division title barring a complete collapse, and even if they do get overtaken by Arizona or someone else for the NL West, the addition this year of a second wild card means that it’s nearly impossible that they won’t be at least on the periphery of a playoff spot. (ESPN currently has them at a 70.7% chance to make the playoffs, one way or another.) I tend to think that getting that second wild card is something of a dummy prize, since all it earns you is one game, but it’s better than not having that game and you know front office types looking to defend their jobs will point to their team “making the playoffs”. For a team like the Dodgers, having that extra avenue to the playoffs is a clear help.

The unintended consequence of that, however, is that the second wild card will keep many more teams thinking they have hope deeper into the summer, to the point where the July 31 trading deadline – always one of my favorite times of the year – could be decimated by a lack of clubs willing to admit they’re out of the race and ready to sell. And while that will affect every contender looking to add, it could be particularly damaging to the Dodgers, who are currently looking at a shocking four starters with an OPS of 76+ or below – Dee Gordon, James Loney, Juan Rivera, & Juan Uribe. Gordon probably won’t be going anywhere, but the struggles of Loney & Uribe have been well-documented; #RBImachine jokes or not, Rivera’s awful .247/.276/.358 line is even worse than I thought it was.

With little hope those three will turn it around and without immediate help coming from the minors – I like to think we’ll see both Scott Van Slyke & Jerry Sands at some point, though neither is likely to be an instant savior – the Dodgers are going to need to look externally to fill those holes. And that’s where the second wild card becomes an impediment; for all of the fan love for David Wright, for example, the Mets are 17-13 and desperately trying to hold on to their dwindling fan base. In the past, they may have thought they had no chance to beat out Philadelphia & Atlanta & Cincinnati & Arizona and whomever else for the lone wild card; now, they’re likely to hold out much longer before admitting they’re out, possibly beyond July.

In fact, there are only a few teams at this ridiculously early date who are clearly falling behind. In the AL, neither Boston nor Anaheim seem likely to be sellers in July; Minnesota, Kansas City, & Seattle might be, but what they have at the 1B/3B/LF vortex of suck the Dodgers have are either not worth pursuing (I’m looking at you, Chone Figgins & Danny Valencia) or not likely to be moved (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon in Kansas City). In the NL, the bottom three teams feature two division rivals in San Diego & Colorado along with the Cubs, who can offer either the bloated corpse of Alfonso Soriano or the potential of overpaying for the hot start of minor league lifer Bryan LaHair.

That’s hardly a complete list, because we don’t know what the standings will be in July; it’d seem likely that teams like Houston, Pittsburgh, & the White Sox could be joining them at the bottom. Still, there’s a reason that teams are willing to sell at the deadline, and that’s because the players they have aren’t winning – I don’t look forward to a potential bidding war over Carlos Lee & Garrett Jones.

The Dodgers are finally owned by a group who seems to have the money to operate them properly. But it takes more than money to see improvement, and between the demand far outweighing supply and the less-than-stacked Dodger minor league system, finding outside reinforcements for a 2012 playoff run may be a tall order.