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The Cautionary Tale of Ruben Rivera

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Ruben Rivera
Ruben Rivera
Otto Greule, Getty Images

The Cautionary Tale of Ruben Rivera

Ruben Rivera was one of the biggest prospect busts in recent history.

Rivera was signed by the New York Yankees as a free agent out of the Panama in November of 1990. He is a cousin of Mariano Rivera. 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 didn't make the Baseball America Top GCL Prospects list, but I remember being aware of him as a player to watch even back then. I would likely rate someone similar as a Grade C+ with higher potential nowadays.

He followed that up with a .276/.385/.568 campaign for Oneonta 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. Scouting reports were very enthusiastic, and given his tools, I'd probably have rated him at Grade B+. He was named Top Prospect in the NY-P by BA.

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. Despite those issues, 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. My take would have been similar; Rivera's upside was tremendous, but there was risk involved.

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, frustrated, and insubordinate. Despite these problems he received a trial in New York and 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. I felt his major league line was repeatable and something he would build on. But I also 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? 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, but never got his OPS above league average. He went through a rash of injuries; worse, 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 for a memorabilia sale, getting himself kicked off the Yankees team that had re-signed him as a free agent.

Rivera went south of the border to the Mexican League and began playing for Piratas de Campeche in 2005. He's been very successful there, hitting over .300 every year, averaging 22 homers per season. In 2012 at age 38, he hit .317/.410/.508 with 14 steals.

There are worse fates than being a Mexican League star, but oh, what could have been. In the majors, he was a career .216/.307/.393 hitter.

To this day, I believe Ruben Rivera DID have the natural physical ability to be a truly outstanding player, 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; undone by injuries and personal problems, he couldn't make the adjustments necessary to succeed at the major league level.

LESSONS LEARNED: Makeup matters; strikeouts bad; great tools don't always compensate for poor skills.