What if Luis Rivas had been good?

Quick!  Without looking, how old do you think Luis Rivas is?

Ok, take a look.  I’ll occupy myself while you check.

He’s 33!

He is 33 and hasn’t played in the majors in four years.  In his career, he played in 648 games, all before he was 30 years old.  Now, he hasn’t played a single game in four years.  This is simply fascinating to me.  Luis Rivas is like 3 years older than I am.  For perspective, my professional career would already be over, if I was on the Luis Rivas career path.  How many people reach the very top level of their profession at age 21 and are done by 30?  In baseball, probably a lot of people.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely strange when applied to the real world.

In the context of baseball, Luis Rivas could have been a really useful, important player.  The problem was, he was a borderline useless player.  He had some skills.  His contact wasn’t terrible, so his batting averages were never terrible.  He had some speed, so he was able to steal some bases.  His speed also gave him some range in the field.  Unfortunately, his free-swinging ways led him to below average on-base percentages.  In addition, he had very little power.  While he had the speed to be a good defender, he never really rated as a good defender using advanced metrics.  All in all, he never converted his tools to production.

Young Luis Rivas was exciting.  He was signed out of Venezuela shortly after his 16th birthday.  He was rated in Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list for 5 straight years, starting in 1997 when he was just 17 years old.  The Twins don’t currently have a prospect in the middle infield that will make that list, unless you count Eddie Rosario, but he hasn’t yet proved that he can play second base consistently.  Rivas made that list 5 times!  He debuted for the Twins in 2000, just weeks after his 21st birthday.  In that 2000 season, which he mostly split between AA and AAA, he showed decent power, decent plate discipline and decent defense.  While that might not be overwhelming, he was only 20 years old for the vast majority of that season.  There was reason to believe that he would grow as a player as he gained experience.

He didn’t.  Rivas had one season where he had a positive WAR (2004 – 0.5).  That same season was also the worst season he had as a Twin in the on-base department, but his power spiked ever so minimally.  It was enough, when added to his first non-negative dWAR season to give him a terrible, but above zero WAR.  2004 was also the first year in which Rivas made more than a million dollars.  In 2005, he made 1.625 million dollars, was terrible, was sent to AAA at the All-Star Break and then was not retained for 2006.  He played parts of two more seasons with Chicago in 2007 and Pittsburgh in 2008.  He was given a minor league deal in 2009 with the Cubs but never played another major league game.

I’m not trying to create a career retrospective of Luis Rivas here.  What if he had been good?  What if he had progressed as a player after age 20?  What if his good contact led him to future .300 averages?  His on-base skills were never there, but a .300/.340/.400 second baseman with decent to good defense has value.  In 2012, this is pretty much what Daniel Murphy gave the Mets, Howard Kendrick gave the Angels and Marco Scutaro gave the Giants/Rockies.  That isn’t a list of stars, but it is a list of starters.

This certainly would have removed what is a gaping hole in the current Twins lineup.  Penciling Rivas in the 9 hole at 2nd base from 2000 to 2016 would have been a luxury.  Granted, the odds of Rivas staying in Minnesota for 17 years is pretty slim, but even if he could have been decent for 10 years, he would have given the front office one less issue to deal with.  The outfield has always been stocked, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau had catcher and first locked down.  There was talent elsewhere, to fill voids here and there.  It seems like every offseason, the Twins are looking for one or two middle infielders.  If Luis Rivas had been good, that would have been one fewer position to fill.

Luis Rivas was not good.  Surprisingly, it is hard to know what a 16 year old will become as an adult, much less as a professional baseball player.  The fact that Rivas got to the Majors at all is borderline remarkable.  While he was not a star, he was useful in his own way.  He was cheap.  Cheap players have value, even if they are kind of terrible.  Baseball requires a careful allocation of resources.  A cheap second baseman frees up a team to have expensive players elsewhere.  Regardless of his relative value, it is hard not to wonder:  what if Luis Rivas was good?  What do you think?

Previously, I wondered What if the Twins had selected Mike Trout over Kyle Gibson in the 2009 MLB Draft.  I also wondered What If the Twins had actually pulled off a Cliff Lee trade in 2010.  

If you have any Twins What Ifs to suggest, please let me know on Twitter – @bridman77 or in the comments below.

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  • Joel Thingvall

    When you talk of Luis Rivas, you can also draw comparisons to Alexi Casilla. Both are decent enough players, but then you start looking at replacement level and see they are easily replaced. You can argue that Rivas is as good as, say, a Denny Hocking, Nick Punto, Jeff Reboulet. What did Jason Bartlett do that made him a multi-millionaire. Cristian Guzman managed to turn a couple of great seasons into a great payday with the twins and another with the Nationals…but never lived up to his hype. It’s what the Twins are facing even now…$10 million+ for Morneau, or something considerably cheaper or even Parmelee for 1B. Rivas was one-dimensional and actually not worth $2 million a year.

    • Brad Swanson

      Oh yeah, Rivas was hardly worth 2 dollars at the end. If he had been decent though, there was some value.

      One of the things I think the Twins do very well is letting replacement level players leave when they start to command money due to service time. We harp on the number of middle infielders that aren’t great on this team, but when they make the league minimum, they can be useful.

      Once they hit arbitration, it’s time to let them go.

      Also, thanks for reminding me that Jeff Reboulet exists. I had forgotten about him; not sure how though…

  • Craig H

    Thanks. Rivas – and also the obsessive Internet hate on Rivas, which I don’t accuse this column of adding to – have always fascinated me.

    I recently bought a March 27, 1997 Reusse column from spring training about Rivas
    and the Twins newly-opened (1995) Bejuma academy in Venezuela. The Twins signed Rivas for a $12,000 signing bonus. Even Tony Oliva thought 17-year old Rivas would be something big.

    The short story, I think, is he got fat quick. In two years he couldn’t go two steps to his backhand. Turned out he was a bad second baseman for a good team.

    I will always think that what Rivas was (I will remember the Guzman/Rivas “too fast commercial,” the pretty double play relays, and the fine teams he played on) is more interesting that what Rivas could have been.

    • Brad Swanson

      You know, when you put it that way, Rivas was pretty impressive. First, he signed for 12 grand, which even then was basically nothing. Second, he signed as a child. The fact that he even played a Major League game is pretty impressive. Too bad he couldn’t control his weight better, but that is a game that many will play.

  • Myjah

    Greatest headline. Love this.

    • Brad Swanson

      Thanks! I haven’t slept in days.