Kansas City Royals: Prospect rewind, Emmanuel Rivera

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images /

The Kansas City Royals have yet to permanently fill the hole at third base left by Mike Moustakas. Is Royals prospect Emmanuel Rivera a realistic candidate for the job?

Uncertainty at third base plagues the Kansas City Royals and has ever since Mike Moustakas suffered a season-ending knee injury in his infamous 2016 on-field collision with Alex Gordon. Combined with the prospect of losing Moustakas to free agency at the end of 2017, the injury crystallized thought that the end of Moustakas’ time in Kansas City might be near; although free agency didn’t pan out for Moose and he returned to the Royals in 2018, his trade to Milwaukee in late July made the need for a long-term solution at third base a stark and sudden reality.

Hunter Dozier played 100 games at third for the Royals in his excellent 2019 season and seems more than suitable for the position, but there is still talk of him moving to the outfield or first base. The failure of any other Royal to step up and stake a viable, continuing claim to third base has only intensified the uncertainty surrounding the position.

Among possible solutions is 23-year old Emmanuel Rivera, an athletic 6-2, 195-pound third baseman in the organization since the Royals chose him in the 19th round of the 2015 amateur draft. Rivera reached AA for the first time in 2019, his fifth season in the organization, and is ranked as the Royals’ 17th best prospect.

Offense has been Rivera’s strongest suit. He slashed .310/.364/.468 at Class A Lexington in 2017, where he demonstrated some pop with 12 home runs and 72 RBI in 122 games. In 99 games the next season at Wilmington, he slashed a respectable .280/.333/427 with 6 homers, 25 doubles, 6 triples and 61 RBI.

Not surprisingly, however, Rivera’s 2019 promotion to AA Northwest Arkansas brought a decline at the plate: In 131 games —the most he’s played in a single season so far — Rivera’s number of extra-base hits dropped by 10, he knocked in 57 runs, and he slashed .258/.297/.345. But these less impressive numbers aren’t solely attributable to the expected perils of playing at a higher level, as a thumb injury marred Rivera’s performance.

Rivera appears to be primarily a pull hitter (he’s consistently pulled far more pitches than not), suggesting his lack of consistent power should encourage him to refine his ability to hit to the opposite field. He steals an occasional base (33 in five seasons) but isn’t a constant threat to run. He’s not likely to be disruptive on the base paths.

Defense may be the greatest present obstacle to Rivera’s major league chances.  His career fielding percentage is a lackluster .938, marked by .928 last season at AA and a career-low .925 at Lexington in 2017; his 20 errors in 2019 and 21 in 2017 are troubling. Attention to glovework is imperative.

Rivera played winter ball in Puerto Rico after the 2016, 2017 and 2018 regular seasons. Whether he chooses to work on his game in the winter leagues this offseason remains to be seen. Unless he needs time to rest himself or his thumb, winter work wouldn’t hurt his chances to advance in the Kansas City organization.

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Combined, Rivera’s pedestrian offensive numbers in 2019, his thumb injury and concerns about his defense point toward a return ticket to Northwest Arkansas in 2020. Expect him to spend the season there, but an injury-free year, improvement at the plate and better defense at the hot corner could earn him time in Omaha. But, even with the uncertain picture surrounding their situation at third base, a spot with the Kansas City Royals is much further away. If Rivera is the ultimate solution at third base, it won’t be in the near future.