Can Emmanuel Rivera be an option at third for the Royals in the post-“Moose” era?

The Royals have had some trouble finding a third-baseman since Mike Moustakas was traded away to Milwaukee during the 2018 season. In many ways, the third base position in Kansas City has been a revolving door, as Dayton Moore has failed to find a substantial option at the position over that time span, both on an internal (within the farm system) and external (from trades) basis.

Cheslor Cuthbert had a shot at the position after Moose got hurt and missed most of the season 2016, but Cuthbert failed to do anything of note at the hot corner in his time in Kansas City, and was eventually non-tendered after the 2019 season. Kelvin Gutierrez was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Kelvin Herrera deal, but he failed to stay health or do much of note since 2019, especially on the offensive end, and he was eventually designated for assignment at the end of June.

And lastly, while Hunter Dozier has played some considerable time at third, and showed that he could handle the position offensively in 2019, defense has been a different story. In 2019, he was six outs BELOW average, according to Baseball Savant’s OAA metric, and this season, he’s been even worse, as his OAA is eight outs below average. Hence, even though Dozier profiles offensively at the hot corner position, his glove doesn’t really fit there, and it’s not surprising that the Royals have been testing him out in the corner outfield positions as of late.

Which leads to Puerto Rican-born third baseman Emmanuel Rivera, who was recently re-activated off the injured list after suffering a hamate bone injury earlier in July, and has been solidified as the Royals’ regular third-baseman as of late:

Will Rivera buck the trend of third basemen who have failed to live up to expectations in the shadow of Moustakas? Or can Rivera be a solid offensive and defensive option at the hot corner who could be perhaps a long-term option in Kansas City, even with Bobby Witt, Jr. knocking on the door in Triple-A Omaha?

Rivera was a force in Triple-A Omaha this year, as he posted a .398 wOBA and 143 wRC+ in 45 games and 198 plate appearances, which also included 15 home runs and 42 RBI. Even though he struggled in double-A Northwest Arkansas, posting a 79 wRC+ in in 534 plate appearances with the Naturals in 2019, he showed a re-developed power stroke, as his 15 home runs in Triple-A was over the double the amount that he hit in Double-A back in 2019 (and he did so in 86 fewer games).

Here’s an example of Rivera showcasing his new power stroke with the Storm Chasers earlier in the year:

With Rivera belting balls out of parks in Triple-A, and the Royals having a roster spot open in the wake of Gutierrez’s DFA, it made sense why Moore and the Royals promoted the 25-year-old former 19th round pick. Rivera did post a strong debut in Boston at Fenway Park, as he garnered two hits, which showed Royals fans that he could perhaps transition his hot bat in Triple-A to the Major League level:

Unfortunately, Rivera hurt his hamate bone after one out in his second MLB game ever, and a lengthy IL stint followed. Considering how difficult hamate bone injuries can be to recover from, it seemed initially like Rivera would be out for a while, maybe the rest of the season. And yet, Rivera recovered quickly, and was able to make his return to the Royals lineup by August 4th.

Since returning, Rivera has produced an interesting, though unspectacular profile at third base. Through 47 plate appearances, he is posting a triple slash of .267/.298/.289 which includes a wOBA of .254. Rivera has demonstrated a bit of a free-swinging approach, as he is striking out 24.4 percent of the time while only walking 4.4 percent of the time, which isn’t really promising, especially for an organization where that type of hitting approach is far too common.

However, when diving deeper into his batted ball metrics via Baseball Savant, Rivera is hitting the ball hard, and one has to wonder if Rivera is due to break out, especially as he sees more pitches at the Major League level. His expected wOBA is .337, which is 83 points higher than his actual wOBA, and his average exit velocity on batted balls is 93.3 MPH, which is actually one of the better marks for Royals hitters. Yes, the barrel rate isn’t there (3.3 percent currently), which is concerning, especially since the lack of barrels was an issue as well for Gutierrez in his time in Kansas City.

That being said, Rivera has shown an ability to hit line drives at the Major League level in nearly his first 50 at-bats, with this single off of the Yankees’ Nestor Cortes being a prime example.

Thus, how Rivera’s power transitions to the Major League level will be an interesting development to follow over this next month and a half of play in 2021. If Rivera continues to just be a “singles” hitter who doesn’t walk much, it will be hard for him to justify a shot at the starting third base position in Spring Training in 2022. However, Rivera’s hard hit metrics belie his potential, and Royals fans should be curious to see if Rivera could perhaps make a case over these final 45 games that he can be the Royals’ third baseman of the future.

The odds probably are against Rivera in terms of being the Royals’ starting third baseman in 2022. After all, he’s been a bit inconsistent at the Minor League level, usually following up superb offensive seasons with typically mediocre ones the next year. Furthermore, the Royals may feel the need to move Witt, Jr. to third, especially if Adalberto Mondesi is fully healthy next spring (big “if” there).

However, Rivera will be an interesting candidate to the break the “curse” at third base in Kansas City since Moustakas departed. He has some solid, though unspectacular tools, and he seems to be a “gamer”, which should resonate with Royals fans (his quick recovery from his hamate bone injury is something to note). Furthermore, for some context on the Royals’ third base struggles since Moose left the position in Kansas City, let’s take a look at how Rivera has fared to Gutierrez and Cuthbert since 2018:

As Royals fans can see from the chart above, Rivera seems initially to be a very similar player, especially offensively, to both Cuthbert and Gutierrez. However, it’s such a small sample, and wouldn’t be a fair comparison to say that Rivera is that kind of player just yet, especially since Gutierrez has 251 more plate appearances and Cuthbert has 403 more plate appearances than Rivera (and this is only going back to 2018).

It will be interesting to see though what this chart will look like by the end of the 2021 season…

And if Rivera will distance himself from these two or hover around the same ballpark.

If it’s the latter, well…playing time may not be long for Rivera at the hot corner in Kansas City, especially in 2022.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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