There was a not-so-short time in February and March a young infielder not named Bobby Witt Jr. had the KC Royals facing a hard spring training decision.
While most Cactus League attention focused squarely on Witt, and speculation he’d make the Royals’ Opening Day roster ran rampant, Emmanuel Rivera busied himself in Witt’s shadow trying to stake his own viable claim to a spot in Kauffman Stadium’s infield. Although he hadn’t seen a pitch or fielded a ball above Double-A, the Royals played him 23 times and he responded well, hitting .293 with three doubles, a triple, a home run, and six RBIs.
Rivera made his case for promotion, but KC chose instead to assign him to their Alternate Training Site, then to Triple-A Omaha for the delayed start of the minor league season.
Rivera didn’t get off to a good start at Omaha, but recovered superbly. After Sunday’s 6-1 loss to Iowa in which Rivera’s 14th home run of the season accounted for the Storm Chasers’ only score, his line was .282/.337/.593 and he’d driven in 40 runs in 44 games. And those 14 homers tied him with teammate Ryan McBroom for the Triple-A East lead.
Those numbers made it easy for the KC Royals to make their latest move, one obviously designed to spark an ineffective offense and stabilize third base, a position left in some disorder by the shifting lineups Adalberto Mondesi’s latest injury have caused.
Kansas City called Rivera up Monday; Manager Mike Matheny immediately penciled him into the sixth spot in the order and installed him at third against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Rivera didn’t disappoint.
He stepped into a major league batter’s box for the first time with two out in the first, and slapped Boston starter Garrett Richards’ first pitch into right-center for, of course, his first big league hit:
Two innings later, and against Richards again, Rivera singled to left-center, making him a perfect 2-for-2.
Richards struck him out in the fifth and he grounded out in the eighth. He also committed a harmless error in the eighth after the Red Sox took the lead for good in the sixth (they won 6-5), but by then Rivera had ideal first-game memories.
Rivera is a solid choice for these struggling Royals. He’s good with the bat, as his career .271 minor league batting average and 140 wRC+ at Omaha this season suggest, and brings welcome power. His defense needs some work, but the club wouldn’t have brought him to the majors if it isn’t tolerable.
What might Emmanuel Rivera’s promotion mean for him and the KC Royals?
Kansas City designated Kelvin Gutierrez for assignment to make room for Rivera, meaning he can return to the organization if he clears waivers and he and the Royals want to continue their relationship. Don’t be surprised if Gutierrez reappears in Omaha.
Rivera’s promotion may also signal the club’s willingness to part with utility infielder Hanser Alberto who, considering his one-year contract, versatility, and past major league success, could well be moved by the July 30 trade deadline. Combined with Mondesi’s eventual return, Nicky Lopez’s anticipated return to second base when Mondesi gets back, and Whit Merrifield’s versatility, the Royals’ need for Alberto can’t be long-lived.
But Rivera’s ultimate control of his own destiny is limited. The chain lineup reaction Mondesi’s return will trigger leaves his roster spot in peril—assuming Merrifield moves to right field, Hunter Dozier will return to third, leaving Rivera without a position. He has some, but very little, experience at first, second, and shortstop; whether the Royals will retain him as a utility man depends on how he hits.
For now, though, Rivera is off to a good start.
The KC Royals and Boston play the second of their four-game series tonight at Fenway Park. Matheny should have Rivera in the lineup again.