The New York Mets have been utterly devastated by injuries this year. While there are few positives to the injury bug, one of them is that it has given T.J. Rivera another chance to play everyday. Given Rivera’s success last season, he probably shouldn’t have had to wait so long for his second chance, but once the club re-signed Neil Walker, it was Rivera who was left without a clear role.
In his second season with the Mets, he’s hitting a cool .300/.382/.467. That follows his 2016 debut in which he slashed .333/.345/.476. The hitter with a career .324 minor league batting average is hitting .321 in 53 major league games. His BABIP (.347) is sustainable and his walk rate is improving. Long story short, Rivera is a major league hitter. In fact, he’s probably one of the Mets’ best hitters. He should not be moved to the bench when Lucas Duda and Asdrubal Cabrera return.
So how do you get Rivera into the lineup? With Rivera’s strong play at first base, there have been some rumblings that Lucas Duda might be losing his job. This is a silly idea. Duda has a OPS of .931 this year. He’s actually struggled against righties (.705 OPS) and crushed lefties (1.778 OPS). Still, the best bet is probably to platoon Duda and Wilmer Flores at first base. Given their well-documented career platoon success, together they will put up above-average to great numbers at first base.
So where does that leave Rivera? Well, his more natural positions are second base and third base. Here the Mets have options. Both Walker and Jose Reyes are not under contract next season. There are no-long term ramifications for benching either to get Rivera in the lineup. In fact, while the Mets rarely give preference to a young player in these situations, most teams would love to turn to a youthful, energetic hitter when veterans are struggling.
Still, it might make sense to hold off on benching Walker. While Walker seems to be a lesser version of himself post-back surgery, he is hitting .270/.357/.432 in May. It’s best to see if he keeps that up, and if the Mets do fall out of it, Walker should at least command some interest at the trade deadline. No immediate reason to squash his value.
Third base, though, is a different story. Reyes has been super streaky in 2017 both at the plate and in the field. He could make more sense in a utility role, as the Mets are often too one-sided at the plate off the bench. His energy will be missed in the lineup, but Rivera is a better hitter. Since Michael Conforto is thriving at leadoff, it’s not like the Mets would miss Reyes in that role.
However, the best move could be the most unconventional. Put Rivera in left field, move Conforto to center, and bench Curtis Granderson and Juan Lagares. Rivera has played a little outfield in the minors and spring training. It’s not his natural position, but it’s a way to get his bat in the lineup. The Mets seem to be sacrificing outfield defense anyway, so might as well go full speed ahead to get your best bats in the lineup.
There isn’t much to say about Granderson that hasn’t already been said. He’s been pretty dreadful all season and hopes of a significant turnaround look smaller by the day. To put things in context, Rivera would need to go 3 for his next 60 to have a worse batting average than Granderson.
Meanwhile, Lagares just isn’t more than a bench player, and the Mets have to come to terms with that and stop trying to hope he’ll turn it around to justify the extension they gave him. He has a .647 OPS over the last three seasons and has one RBI in all of 2017. And every year, it seems like he looks worse at the plate. He’s a great late-game defensive replacement but should never start.
With all of the bad luck that got them in this mess, the Mets need to stop making it harder for themselves to win. That means stop playing sub-.200 hitters on an everyday basis (a phrase that seems to need to be uttered every May). Rivera is a good hitter. He may not fit their profile, but neither did Justin Turner or Daniel Murphy. The Mets need to play their best hitters, stop banking on aging veterans, and be thankful they have a guy like Rivera — regardless of the position he plays.