Catcher Rene Rivera offers Rays hope at position of need

Rene Rivera made 85 starts at catcher for the Padres last season.

Matt Kartozian/Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Hope for a position that has flummoxed the Tampa Bay Rays in recent years comes in the form of a mild-mannered 31-year-old Puerto Rican, his back straight and chest out while standing near his stall at Charlotte Sports Park, this man a presence who doesn’t promise the world but guarantees full effort.

"You work hard for having this opportunity," catcher Rene Rivera said Friday afternoon. "I just want to take advantage of it. I just want to go out there and perform and play my best and be myself."

Hope for a position that was more dud than difference-maker for the Rays in 2014 comes in the form of a player who, if he becomes the anti-Jose Molina in hustle and the anti-Ryan Hanigan in health, will be the elixir for a frustrating ill behind the plate.

"I’m going to play hard," Rivera said. "I’m not going to try to do too much. I just want to do whatever I can do. … It’s a fun game. It’s a kids’ game. So you have to enjoy it. So that’s what I’m going to do, enjoy it."

A fun game. A kids’ game. A game-ready attitude.

What if Rivera combines major-league promise with a Little League joy for his craft? What if he becomes that elusive answer to the Rays’ enigma at catcher?

"Hopefully," he said, his voice without hesitation, "the rest of my career will be here."

Wouldn’t that be something?

For now, though, keep the champagne corked. Rivera is an unknown, but the Rays view him no different than a stock with the potential to soar.

Drafted in the second round by the Seattle Mariners in 2001, he made his major-league debut with that franchise in 2004. But he never played more than 40 games in the majors in a single season before he appeared in 45 with the Minnesota Twins in 2011.

Then last year, dynamite. He made a career-high 85 starts at catcher for the San Diego Padres, with 103 appearances overall, and he set career marks in batting average (.252), on-base percentage (.319), hits (74), doubles (18), home runs (11) and RBI (44). Behind the plate, he may as well have stuffed a badge and handcuffs in his back pocket before throwing out 36.3 percent of potential base stealers.

Rivera is no one-hit summer wonder, either. In parts of six major-league seasons, he has thrown out 39 percent of potential base stealers. The major-league average in the span: just 24.1 percent.

"We kind of feel like we’re very fortunate to get Rene at the right time," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "I don’t know how much more developing he has to do. He’s already very good defensively, and then you look at the offense, it seemed like he kind of broke out (last year), was maybe a little bit more consistent, and hopefully, (he’ll) just keep adding to that. Another guy who’s going to be a big piece. Early indications are he has been phenomenal."

It’s impossible to think about Rivera, gained in that monster three-team, 11-player trade in December that sent Wil Myers to the West Coast, without comparing him to Jose Molina, another Puerto Rican catcher of recent Rays past. But aside from sharing a position and a hometown — both are natives of Bayamon, located on the northern coastal valley south of San Juan — the two players have as much in common as a 60-inch plasma TV and a transistor radio.

Molina, who was 38 years old to start last season, appeared in a more-than-expected 80 games in 2014 with Hanigan missing significant time because of a right hamstring injury and a left oblique problem. As Rivera’s career ascended, Molina’s raced down a mountain with busted breaks, and the painful production showed. The 15-year veteran hit .178 with just 10 RBI, 55 strikeouts and a .417 OPS.

But ask Rivera about the pressure of taking this chance with the Rays and sprinting with it, of making others forget about the disappointing Molina/Hanigan duo, and a curious answer will follow. Rivera not only accepts the pressure, he also welcomes it as fuel for his engine.

There’s no timidity here.

"I learned throughout my career that I need to take the pressure in the right way," Rivera said. "You need pressure. I need pressure to play baseball. … It just makes you play better. It makes you be 100 percent and helps you give everything you’ve got that day."

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Right answer. But Rivera’s greatest competition, barring a surprise, will be his own standard.

Forget the thought of a spring position battle behind the plate. Cash envisions Rivera being the Rays’ 100-plus-game workhorse, that three-digit threshold eluding many of Tampa Bay catchers in recent seasons. Since 2011, only Molina, in 2012 with 102 games, and Jose Lobaton, in 2013 with 100 games, have had at least 100 appearances in a single season.

Will Rivera stay healthy and join the club? Will he continue the fireworks that lit up his stat line last season? Will he attack his grown-up duties with kid-like flair? To begin, his traits suggest a promising summer, his ceiling high but not yet capped, the humility present but the hunger alive.

"You can see that he has developed into a leader," said Rays catcher Bobby Wilson, who played with Rivera in 2009 on the Lobos de Arecibo of the Puerto Rican Winter League. "He’s got some serious pop. He’s one of the better defenders in the game. Being Puerto Rican and being from Bayamon, you know that he’s got that good catcher blood in him."

Rivera has the blood, but the right head helps too. He has the DNA, but what’s found between the eyes matters.

"I’ll bring my best everyday," he said. "I just want to win. So you’re going to see a guy who has dedicated himself to the team."

Hope has arrived.

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