Free Agent Bargain: Juan Rivera

This afternoon, we looked at the first of several potential free agent bargains this winter – Jeremy Affeldt. This afternoon, we take a look at another guy with some potential for positive reward who won’t cost an arm and a leg. That guy is Juan Rivera.

Two years ago, Rivera hit .310/.362/.525 for the Angels, racking up a 2.45 WPA/LI mark that made him a very solid contributor to Anaheim’s offense. Then, injuries struck, and the last two years have been something of a wash. He managed just 324 plate appearances between the two seasons, and the missed time cost him his shot at a regular gig in LA. Now 30 and hitting free agency, it’s unlikely that a team is going to be giving him a multi-year contract without proving he can play everyday again, but if we look at his skills, he’s still a pretty solid hitter.

Rivera’s signature skill has always been his power, and that hasn’t disappeared. Even with the health problems and limited playing time, he posted a .191 ISO last year. When you look a little deeper, there’s even more reasons for optimism. During the first three months of the season, Rivera managed all of 66 plate appearances in 30 games. He barely made it on the field from April through June, and he wasn’t giving the Angels any reason to put him in the line-up more often, struggling to a .177/.227/.226 line. He had three extra base hits, all doubles, and simply wasn’t hitting. However, Gary Matthews Jr’s struggles created an opportunity for him to play a bit more often, from July on, he showed that the old Juan Rivera still existed.

In the final three months of the season, Rivera hit .268/.299/.505, and while the OBP isn’t exactly impressive, the 22 extra base hits (12 of which were home runs) show that Rivera’s still got some juice in his swing. His overly aggressive approach at the plate will always make him a low on base guy, but that kind of power is still valuable. Even with the .299 OBP, Rivera’s WPA/LI over the final three months was -.07, making him essentially a league average hitter.

Now, if that was Rivera’s ceiling, he’d be a nifty platoon corner OF/DH type, and that would be the end of it. But Rivera was a league average hitter while hitting .270. As a guy with both good contact and power, Rivera’s got the kind of skills that could allow him to hit .290 to .310. If you don’t strike out, and you hit the ball over the wall with some frequency, it’s pretty hard to post a low batting average, thanks to the sheer quantity of chances you have for hits. Rivera managed to hit .269 over the final three months despite a .242 batting average on balls in play. That’s extraordinarily low, even for a guy hitting a ton of flyballs.

If we assume that Rivera’s true talent BABIP is more in the .280 range (it’s .292 for his career, but we’ll knock it down a bit for age and injuries), and the rest of his skills remain in tact, he’s a .290 to .300 hitter. Even with his aggressive approach, .300/.340/.500 isn’t out of the question.

Rivera may never get back to his 2006 prime, but he’s certainly better than he’s shown the last two years, and there’s no reason to think he’s washed up at age 30. For a team looking for a right-handed power bat who makes good contact and offers some upside without requiring a long term, big money deal, Rivera’s a good bet. He’ll never be a star, but he could be the kind of useful role player that is picked up cheaply that championship teams need.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

20 Responses to “Free Agent Bargain: Juan Rivera”

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  1. mymrbig says:

    I peg him at .290/.344/.505. Wait, that is Carlos Lee’s career line! Granted, Carlos Lee has been better the last 3 years than his career numbers indicate, but I don’t think it is unreasonable to think of Juan Rivera as being Carlos Lee with 20 points off all three of his triple slash numbers, which is a worthwhile player.

    This is a great series Dave, many kudos. Its too bad way too few GM’s will pay any attention, they are missing some great info here!

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  2. Tom Au says:

    Juan Rivera would be a “natural” for the Oakland As. Forget about “league average hitting.” What would interest the As most would be that .362 OBP.

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  3. JH says:

    Juan Rivera 2008 = Jose Guillen 2006. Great signing for a GM smart enough to take the risk.

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  4. Charlie Saponara says:

    I agree 100%. Nice work. If River never broke his leg the Angels would never have had to sign GMJ and we’d be looking at a guy who hit .290-.300 with 20-25 HR’s the past couple seasons.

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  5. Donovan says:

    As if the M’s weren’t in bad enough shape, now you’re sharing your roster bargains with the rest of the non-USS Mariner world? Oy vey.

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  6. Terry says:

    Jose Guillen was fools gold in ’07 and ’08. He is the antithesis of intelligent GMing.

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  7. mymrbig says:

    The Mariners paid Guillen about $5.5 million in 2007 for his .290/.353/.460 line, with half his games played in a park that is very tough on righty power hitters. So I don’t see how he was fools gold in 2007.

    That said, his 2008-10 signing by the Royals was pretty clearly a reach, though crappy teams sometimes have to overpay to get free agents interested. Still, they should have overpaid someone else.

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  8. JH says:

    Yeah, no. Guillen in 2007 was a legitimately plus bat. A 116 OPS+ is a very good player, and the Ms got that production for $5 million. 3 X 36 might’ve been too much to pay for him, but 1 X 5 was very, very good.

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  9. Derris says:

    Guillen wasn’t just a bat. He was also a pourous piece of leather that bled his OPS+ back to a shiny no range, near replacement level overall value.

    $5M for him was at best no bargain. He was a body and that’s about it.

    In ’08 and beyond? Well there is a reason KC stinks.

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  10. JH says:

    For Guillen’s glove to shrink him back to near replacement level with his bat in 2007 he’d have to be the worst right fielder in baseball. He wasn’t. RZR placed him 14th overall, and 7th in the AL among regular right fielders. Tango’s fan scouting report put him right around league average. At worst he was -5 < -15 with the glove, which would kick him down to a league average bat if you assume the absolute worst. The numbers don’t seem to support even that pessimistic a reading, though. There’s no way that glove turned Guillen into anything resembling a -2 win player.

    If you’d said league average I’d be with you. Calling Guillen’s 2007 near replacement level is just nutty.

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  11. CK says:

    Riveria would be a good fit with Atlanta. I also believe that Baldelli would be a high risk/high reward move until their prospects are ready.

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  12. Terry says:

    I’m comfortable calling Guillen a -10 defender over the period being discussed based upon a survey of UZR, Dewan’s +/-, Justin’s translations and even Chone’s ’09 projection.

    I’m also comfortable with the argument that Guillen was roughly an average player in 2007 suggesting Bavasi ultimately paid market value for him. Good for Bavasi.

    Does that make it a good decision? Pecota forecast this line for Guillen in ’07: .260/.310 /.432. Guillen had to dramatically outperform that projection (.290/.353/.460) to be roughly an average major leaguer. You be the judge concerning Bavasi’s judgment.

    Looking past 2007, Guillen’s contract with KC is pretty difficult to defend and suggesting 3 X 36 “may have been too much” somehow just doesn’t capture how poor of a decision it actually was.

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  13. JH says:

    PECOTA doesn’t do a good job of assessing people who are coming off of poor performances due to injury. Nate Silver would be the first to admit this. A spreadsheet-based calculation can’t properly weight the effect of a player hitting .217/.276/.398 in an injury-plagued third of a season. Guillen’s 2007 numbers were perfectly in line with his 2003, 2004, and 2005 seasons, and Bavasi did a good job in recognizing him as an undervalued commodity. It was one of the few good low-risk, high-reward moves he made while with the Mariners.

    Rivera’s the same kind of deal, only with better defense thrown in.

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  14. Terry says:

    Bavasi got lucky and Moore got the chamber with the bullet.

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  15. JH says:

    No, he didn’t. There was way more evidence that Guillen was a good hitter going into 2007 than that he was a bad one. The PECOTA spreadsheet doesn’t have an entry field where Silver can input the exact type and extent of the performance-hampering injury. It only sees the numbers and physical comps and runs its algorithms accordingly. Relying on that as the crux of your argument that Guillen’s 2007 was an unforeseeable fluke is misguided.

    I won’t defend the Royals contract. It was a clear overpay. The 1-year deal was a very good move, though.

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  16. Terry says:

    You seem to be suggesting Guillen’s elbow in ’06 caused Pecota to significantly lower his ’07 projection. Pecota was suggesting a decline was eminent before his ’06. Also, why shouldn’t his injuries of ’06 effect the expectations of a 31 year old?

    Bavasi had to ignore age and injury to expect Guillen to happily pick up where he left off in ’05. It’s almost a certainty that Bavasi wasn’t anticipating a decline in his range.

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  17. Terry says:

    BTW, my argument isn’t characterizing Guillen’s ’07 as an “unforeseeable fluke”. I’ve argued that it was less likely than you’re willing to admit.

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  18. SilverMan says:

    Yeah, I found this piece because I am hoping I can find something that says the Rays are interested. He would be a great guy to have in their lineup most days and it wouldn’t kill them to have him play RF in about 80 games or so. Three years, $10 million seems like it could reel him in. Correct me if I’m wrong about that.

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  19. Mr Redlegs says:

    Rivera would be a perfect fit for the Reds. They are looking for a solid RH hitting corner OF and I think he provides the most bang for the buck. Reds are always looking for a bargain. He would slot nicely in the lineup as a RH presence between Votto and Bruce for the next couple years and be a 30 HR guy in that ballpark.

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  20. John says:

    How good defensively is Rivera these days?

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