Quick! Without looking, how old do you think Luis Rivas is?
Ok, take a look. I’ll occupy myself while you check.
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?
If you have any Twins What Ifs to suggest, please let me know on Twitter – @bridman77 or in the comments below.