Venezuelan prospect destined for Yankee stardom
By Josh Rawitch
MARACAY, Venezuela -- Baseball scouts often talk about the way a ball explodes off a player's bat -- a telltale sign that he's a keeper.
But when Yankees' prospect Juan Rivera takes batting practice, it's not his bat that does the talking, nor is it his mouth. You can see it in his face -- this kid is serious about taking his hacks.
"This guy is a guy that loves to hit a baseball," said Dan Radison, his manager at Double-A Norwich in 2000 and now a coach for the opposing team, Magallanes, in Thursday night's round-robin semifinal game. "He loves to work at hitting. He gets there early every day. He wants to do work and and he wants to learn."
In that respect, Rivera is not alone. There are plenty of eager young prospects who soak up every bit of advice and work equally as hard. Yet few appear as serious as Rivera, whose pregame batting practice session included several tape-measure blasts and even more screaming line drives, but not a single smile.
"When I enter the stadium, I start thinking about working on hitting," said Rivera, a 6'2 inch, 177- pound right fielder for the Aragua Tigres. "There are people who, when they are practicing hitting, try to hit home runs. I don't do that. If I make good contact and the ball goes out, great. But I don't try to do that."
It's not that Rivera can't smile. In fact, with a face like Derek Jeter's, there's a good chance his future in the Big Apple will include endorsement deals that exceed any baseball contract the Yankees give him.
That is, if he stays in the organization.
With the highest payroll in baseball and an outfield that includes Bernie Williams, Gerald Williams and Shane Spencer, along with the newsly acquired John Vander Wal, cracking the 25-man roster could be difficult.
"I would think it would be because basically (owner George) Steinbrenner ... goes out and gets quality, bonafide guys who [are] already proven," said Rivera's current manager, Bill Plummer. "On the other side of it ... you'd be able to get something [for] him too. He's going to be a valuable commodity ... one way or another, if they decide to keep him or move him."
For now, it's doubtful the 23-year old native of Miranda is going anywhere but the Bronx.
"In the last five years or so, young guys are cracking the lineup," said Radison, who has been with the Yankees since 2000. "Shane Spencer's going to be out there next year and he came through our organization. To me, Shane Spencer is a hell of a player and Juan Rivera can go do that role.
"Right now he could go up there and be a platoon outfielder in the big leagues. Is he ready to hit the tough right-handers up there yet? Probably not. But he's getting close."
If not, he will end up in Triple-A Columbus, where Radison will be his hitting coach and a plethora of talented prospects will be his teammates, including Drew Henson and Marcus Thames. But Rivera said he is going to Spring Training looking to earn a spot on the big league club, not back in Triple-A.
After all, what more does he really have to prove at that level? He batted .320 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs at Double-A Norwich last season, earning him a June promotion to Columbus, where he hit .327 with 14 more homers and 40 RBIs. That's a combined .322 (166-for-515) with 28 home runs and 98 RBIs in addition to scoring 89 runs in 132 games. Add that to his .324 average last winter in Venezuela and he's consistently hit over .320 since October, 2000.
"He's on some kind of roll as far as performance," said Radison. "You can't hit for that long of a time and not be for real. That's a lot of at-bats (703). We're talking about a whole winter here last year, all summer and then all winter again. You've got to think this guy can hit."
Though Rivera's speed is only average and he admits he does not work that hard on his fielding, Plummer said he is above average defensively and possesses an above-average arm.
"You put those things together (with above average power and his high batting average) and you've got quite a young player at 23 years old," said Plummer. "He's going to be knocking on the door of the big leagues soon."
In fact, he already did a little knocking for Joe Torre's club last year. In three late-season games, he went hitless in four at-bats, yet the significance was not lost on him.
"I was only the second Venezuelan to start with the Yankees and keep going up all the way to the Major Leagues with them," he proudly stated, citing Oscar Azocar as the first. "I want to make the team, but I will have to work hard to earn a spot."
Ironically, his professional debut in Venezuela came as a pinch hitter for Azocar in 1998 and he doubled to announce his presence. Since then, he's barely stopped hitting, as he registered a .302 mark with nine homers during the regular season this winter and currently has the sixth highest average in the playoffs at .341.
Last night, when his team's leading slugger, Roberto Zambrano, was unable to play due to severe indigestion, Rivera stepped into the clean up spot and crushed a game-tying, three-run homer, and had a solo shot robbed by left fielder Carlos Mendoza in the sixth inning. In the eighth inning, his single extended a rally. He came around to score the tying run in his team's dramatic 7-5 come-from-behind win. The home run was his fourth in the playoffs -- tying him for the league-lead -- and helped his team move closer to securing a spot in the finals next week while snapping Magallanes' playoff record of eight straight victories.
Still, his night was not perfect, as a mental lapse in the eighth inning helped lead to the Navegantes` fifth run. With runners on first and second, he forgot that there was just one out and began jogging towards the dugout after catching a fly ball, allowing the runners to advance.
Chalk one up to growing pains.
"He's the type of kid that has to keep making adjustments," said Plummer before the game. "There are some areas that he still needs to improve on, but it`s because of inexperience. It's youth and he's a kid."
Indeed, while his statistics certainly help paint the picture, it's his potential that has Radison so impressed.
"I had Bernie (Williams) when he was a baby and [Rivera's] farther along as far as knowledge of hitting and knowing what to do and how to hit," said Radison. "I had Gerald Williams. His approach to the ball is better than Gerald's. Those guys are better athletes or better runners ... but he's a guy who learns, who has aptitude.
"He makes the adjustments and keeps getting better and better. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be a quality outfielder in the big leagues."
All the way in Venezuela, you can almost hear Yankee fans counting down the days.
THROUGH JANUARY 17TH
BATTING TOP 10 (MINIMUM 29 PLATE APPEARANCES)
BATTER CLUB AVG G AB R H HR RBI
Guillen, Carlos MAG .412 10 34 8 14 2 6
Ordaz, Luis ARA .400 7 25 2 10 0 1
Sandoval, Danny OCC .378 11 45 9 17 2 4
Rivera, Juan ARA .347 12 49 8 17 3 6