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.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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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!