A young catcher has been quietly working away in the KC Royals minor league system for four years. He hasn’t drawn much public attention, but he’s worth a look.
Many followers of the KC Royals probably presumed Sebastian Rivero, a 21-year old catcher trying to make his way through the KC Royals’ system to Kauffman Stadium, would spend this summer in Wilmington, Delaware, home of Kansas City’s High A farm club, or in Springdale, Arkansas, where the Royals’ Double A affiliate plays. Except for the three games Rivero played for Triple A Omaha last season, he’s never been above High A in his four-year professional career.
That likely presumption may have given way some time ago to another–that COVID-19 would, as it was confirmed recently, wipe out the minor league season and leave Rivero with no place to play.
Instead, Rivero will stick close to the Royals. The major league club named him to its 60-man Player Pool Sunday, meaning he can play this season and work with the team when training camp breaks.
Few may have anticipated the pool selection of Rivero, who signed with the club as a 17-year old international free agent in 2015, debuted with the team’s Dominican Summer League team in 2016, and has since toiled inconspicuously in the low minors. But it wasn’t so surprising to the club’s close followers. Although he’s not on the 40-man roster, Rivero’s actually been in the Royals’ last two spring training camps as a non-roster invitee.
One invitation to spring camp isn’t unusual; two suggests the KC Royals are definitely interested. Inclusion in the Player Pool, the group of Royals and Royals prospects initially eligible to play in 2020’s short season, confirms that interest. Rivero isn’t on board simply to serve as an extra catcher.
Rivero’s selection takes on added importance in light of Monday’s confirmation that there won’t be minor league baseball this year. Instead of working on his own like so many other minor leaguers, Rivero will be among the Royals working in Kansas City or, presumably, Omaha or another suitable nearby locale.
Rivero is worthy of the attention. Despite his rare power (12 home runs in the minors), he’s about held his own with the bat, posting a four-season .250 average across the Dominican League, Rookie ball, A and High A, and eight Triple A at-bats. He hit a combined .280 between Dominican and Arizona Rookie ball in 2016, .265 at Burlington the following season, then .258 at Lexington in 2018. Only his .216 in 91 games at Wilmington last year is troublesome.
But he’ll get plenty of attention at the plate this summer under the watchful eyes of the Royals’ instructional staff.
Defense is Rivero’s strong suit at this point in his career. Baseball America (subscription required) ranked him as the organization’s best defensive catcher last year, a season in which he threw out 41% of would-be base stealers. His career caught-stealing rate is 32%, by comparison, five-time Gold Glover Salvador Perez‘s major league rate is 35%. That’s not to say, of course, that Rivero is another Perez; rather, it demonstrates his talent behind the plate.
Rivero, however, is no shoo-in for a big league catching job in Kansas City. At 30, Perez has a few years left, although he’ll probably begin catching a bit less after 2019’s UCL injury and Tommy John surgery; Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria are capable backups; MJ Melendez may be the catcher of the future if he regains the form lost during a disastrous 2019 at the plate; and the club just signed heralded undrafted free agent catcher Kale Emshoff and inked Saul Garza, another fine catching prospect.
But Rivero may be able to claim a backup spot in KC if his bat improves. The Royals definitely realize his potential. His Player Pool selection proves that.
Sebastian Rivero’s place on the KC Royals’ Player Pool means the club has long-term interest in him. It’s up to Rivero to take advantage of the opportunity.