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Juan Rivera Hits Paydirt, But Why?

The news out of Los Angeles is that the Dodgers have inked outfielder/first baseman Juan Rivera to a one-year guaranteed deal worth $4.5 million, with a club option for 2013. This deal is puzzling for several reasons — among them Rivera’s age, his offensive production over the last two seasons, his mediocre defense and the ramifications for other potential Dodger moves.

Los Angeles got Rivera in a July trade from Toronto after the Blue Jays designated him for assignment. Rivera landed north of the border in January via the trade that sent Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels. But Rivera didn’t produce for the Blue Jays, posting a slash of .243/.305/.360 with 11 doubles and six home runs in 70 games.  By mid-July, Rivera was back in Southern California where he’d played since 2005.

Rivera picked it up a notch for the Dodgers, batting .274/.333/.406 with 12 doubles and five home runs in 62 games. His offense was a significant upgrade over Marcus Thames, whom Rivera replaced, and over Tony Gwynn, Jr., the Dodgers’ Opening Day left fielder.

Still, Rivera’s 2011 efforts at the plate continued a decline that had begun in 2010. His best seasons offensively were in 2006 and 2009 — both with the Angels — and separated by leg surgery that forced him to miss most of 2007. In 2006, his age-29 season, he posted a wOBA of .373 with an wRC+ of 125. In 2009, he had a wOBA of .348 and a wRC+ of 110.  But by 2010, Rivera’s wOBA had dropped to .314 with a wRC+ of 94. His final line in 2011 had his wOBA at .308 and his wRC+ at 96.

Even in those productive years offensively, Rivera’s WAR hovered below 3 as a result of spotty defense in the outfield. After more than 3,700 innings in left field in his career, Rivera’s Defensive Runs Saved is only 28 — and 23 of those runs saved came in 2009. Since 2008, his Revised Zone Rating for left field has fluctuated between .800 and .900. By contrast, Tony Gwynn, Jr.’s RZR over 600-plus innings in left field last season was .935, with 3 DRS.

Rivera also played about 300 innings at first base this season, the first time in his career that he logged any significant time at that position. Looking at RZR, his first-base defense was slightly worse than in left field but about the same as James Loney‘s, the Dodgers’ regular first baseman.

Defensively over the past several years, Rivera’s closest comps in left field are Ryan Ludwick and Josh Willingham. Ludwick had a very disappointing 2011, first with the Padres and then with the Pirates after a mid-summer trade. Willingham had a very good 2011 at the plate, posting a wOBA of .339 and a wRC+ of 123.  Ludwick and Rivera are the same age and appear to be on the decline. Willingham is 18 months younger and still appears to be in his prime.

As Eno Sarris noted in his analysis of the free-agent market for corner outfielders, Rivera is not among the elite free agents. But he’s still in a group of serviceable outfielders who have holes in their offense, defense or both. The Dodgers got to know Rivera and the team apparently liked what it saw, so re-signing him to a one-year deal makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is locking Rivera up so early at $4 million. Rivera’s last contract was for $12.5 million over three years — for an annual average of just more than $4 million. But Rivera was three years younger when he entered that contract and hadn’t begun to show the offensive significant drop-off that came in 2010 and 2011. With a bunch of second-tier corner outfielders available this off-season, it might have made more sense for the Dodgers to see how this free-agent market developed.

More importantly, perhaps, is what the Rivera deal portends for the rest of the Dodgers’ moves — including the possible pursuit of Prince Fielder. It was thought that if the Dodgers added Fielder, Los Angeles would shift James Loney — who is in the final year of salary arbitration — to left field. Locking up Rivera so early limits the Dodgers’ flexibility to pursue these other options, as it seems unlikely the team would pay Rivera $4 million to either platoon with Loney or to come off the bench.

It’s a good day for Juan Rivera and a questionable day for the Dodgers.