There seems to have been some sort of contagious disease among Twins catchers last year, and I’m not talking about Bilateral Leg Weakness. Four men squatted behind the plate at Target Field – Joe Mauer, Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera – and all four struggled at the plate, putting up numbers well below what they’ve shown themselves to be capable of. Other than Holm, all of them are back with the Twins. As a non-roster invitee, Rivera in particular should be highly-motivated to demonstrate that he’s recovered from Unilateral Bat Weakness.
This is Rivera’s second consecutive invitation to Spring Training with the Twins. Last year after being signed as a minor league free agent, he hit .292 with three doubles in 13 Spring Training appearances. Unfortunately, he was unable to hit that well in the regular season. Rivera earned a call up to the Twins in May and stayed with the team most of the rest of the year, but his .144/.211/.202 slash line and -0.5 WAR were among the ugliest stats on a team that had many contenders.
Rivera is a better hitter than that, though. In his time at AAA in 2011, he hit .268/.325/.450 with an impressive 12 doubles in 166 plate appearances. Obviously it is much more difficult to hit in the Majors than it is at AAA, but there was no reason to expect a .124 point drop in batting average or the complete lack of power (Rivera had only four extra base hits for the Twins). Hitting will never be Rivera’s strong point, but it’s 100% reasonable to think that he would hit much better than his performance from last year if given another chance. The Twins must feel the same way, because they re-signed him.
A native of Bayamon Puerto Rico, the 28 year old catcher was originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Rivera was just the fourth catcher taken in the draft. Only Kelly Shoppach, Jeff Mathis, and some guy named Mauer were picked ahead of him. He didn’t hit a lot in his early minor league seasons, but he combined defensive skills with just enough on-base ability to move steadily up the levels of the M’s system. He earned his first MLB cup of coffee in 2003, but that lasted just three at bats. In 2004 he got another chance, and he made the most of it. Rivera hit .396 in 50 plate appearances. He fared less well the next year. Although he spent the entire season with Seattle as a backup catcher, he hit just .152.
The Twins do not need Rivera to be a great, or even a good hitter. But if he spends any time with the Big League club this season, they’ll want him to do more with the bat than he did last year. A .220/.300/.350 line in MLB should be well within Rivera’s ability, and that would be acceptable for a backup catcher with decent defensive skills.
Rivera has more competition this year, now that Ryan Doumit is slated to catch a few dozen games as Joe Mauer’s primary backup. Doumit also plays first base and outfield, though, which may allow the Twins the flexibility to keep a third catcher on the bench. Assuming Mauer and Doumit stay healthy, Rivera’s road to Minnesota will require him to push incumbent backup Butera for that slot. Butera almost certainly has the edge in that battle, so the odds are that Rivera will start the season in Rochester.
Rivera is just one of 25 non-roster invitees playing for the Twins this spring. Check out some of the others here.