Prospect Retro: Ruben Rivera
Ruben Rivera was signed by the New York Yankees as a free agent out of the Panama in November of 1990. Extremely toolsy, he excited scouts with both his speed and his immense power potential. He hit .273/.417/.371 with 21 steals in the 1992 Gulf Coast League, showing lots of speed as well as the ability to draw walks. He followed that up with a .276/.385/.568 campaign in the New York-Penn League in 1993, with 13 homers and 12 steals. His only flaw at this point was a very high strikeout rate, more than once per game. But he hit for power, stole bases, and drew walks. Given his tools, I'd probably have rated him at Grade B+.
Moved up to Greensboro in the Sally League in '94, he hit .288/.372/.573 with 28 homers and 36 steals. He scuffled with the strike zone after being promoted to Tampa, hitting .261/.308/.448 in 34 games and continuing to fan more than once per game. Eddie Epstein gave him a Grade B+ in his '95 Minor League Scouting Notebook, pointing out his exceptional tools and power/speed potential, but worrying about the strikeouts and the slippage in his walk rate against better pitching.
Rivera hit .293/.402/.523 with 37 walks and 16 steals and nine homers in 71 games for Double-A Norwich in '95, then .270/.373/.598 with 15 homers and 26 walks in 48 games for Triple-A Columbus, at age 20. I gave him a straight Grade A in the '96 prospect book, and compared him to Bobby Bonds. I expected that Rivera would put up Bobby Bonds-like numbers as a major leaguer: so-so batting average with a lot of strikeouts, but tons of power, lots of speed, and a high walk rate keeping his OBP very good despite the strikeouts.
Everything began to fall apart in 1996. He sulked after getting sent to the minors in the spring, and hit just .235/.324/.395 in 101 games for Columbus. Scouts said he'd become lazy; he was insubordinate. He hit .284/.381/.442 in 46 games for the Yankees, much closer to what was expected. I gave him a Grade A- in the '97 book, on the theory that he just needed to grow up some. But I noted that he was at a crossroads. . ."he is capable of winning MVP awards," I wrote, "but he could also get his head crammed so far up his butt that he never develops into the player he should be."
Rivera missed most of 1997 with shoulder injuries and was traded to San Diego. I lowered his grade to B+ in the '98 book, noting that all the tools were still there but that he had to prove he was healthy and that his head was on straight. He got to play in '98 for the Padres but struggled, hitting just .209/.325/.378. He was even worse in 1999, hitting a bizarre .195/.295/.406 for the Pads. . .he got 411 at-bats and hit 23 homers and stole 18 bases, giving him a fine Secondary Average of .372. But .195? 143 strikeouts in 147 games? Few managers are going to put up with that for long.
He followed that up with slightly better numbers for the Padres and Reds in subsequent seasons, then went through a rash of injuries and faded from the scene. He developed a reputation for boneheaded baserunning and fielding mistakes. And then there was the weird 2002 spring training incident where he stole Derek Jeter's glove and bat, getting himself kicked off the Yankees team that had re-signed him as a free agent.
Ruben Rivera DID have the natural ability to win an MVP award, and at times early in his career he showed baseball skills to go with his undoubted tools. But he never built on his early success, and was either unable or unwilling to make the adjustments necessary to succeed at the major league level.