After serving as the primary backup in 2016 and 2017 and getting a brief cameo at the end of last season, Rene Rivera is back with the Mets, signing a minor league deal in January. His first go-round went well, and he popped a surprising 25 home runs in Triple-A last season (aided, no doubt, by the gopher ball). In a vacuum, he’s a solid veteran that provides high-minors catching depth. Rivera was the only catcher the Mets added this offseason, however, a short-sighted decision that leaves him too close to the top of a thin depth chart behind the defensively limited and injury prone Wilson Ramos.
At 36, Rivera is very much a known commodity at this point; his offense isn’t great (20-30% below league average), but not as catastrophically bad as Tomas Nido’s (58 DRC+ over the past two seasons). On the defensive side, Rivera isn’t the borderline-elite glove he once was, but he’s above average across the board, be it in terms of framing, throwing out baserunners, or blocking pitches. Of note here is his work with Noah Syndergaard, who much preferred throwing to Rivera as opposed to Ramos. Catcher ERA isn’t particularly meaningful, but Rivera is a definite upgrade over Wilson Ramos’ glove behind the dish, and there’s something to be said about keeping one of your superstar pitchers happy.
The Mets presumably brought Rivera back to serve a similar role to last season, when he was the primary catcher for Triple-A Syracuse. Ali Sanchez figures to spend much of the season at Triple-A as well, which would cut Rivera’s play time a bit. However, it seems that Tomas Nido’s anemic offensive performance over the past two seasons should open the door for Rivera to get a chance at the major league job, a possibility that hasn’t been discussed very much so far during spring training.
On the surface the tradeoff from Rivera to Nido is pretty straightforward; Nido is a great-but-not-elite defender and a horrific hitter, while Rivera is a better-but-still-bad hitter and a good defender. Nido’s lack of options complicates matters, however, as the Mets would have to pass him through waivers if they elected to start the season with Rivera on the bench. The league catching landscape is shallow enough that some team might just take a bet on Nido improving his offense into the range of a viable backup.
Ultimately, this decision isn’t a particularly impactful one. Personally, I’d go with Nido, as his defensive prowess is more valuable than Rivera’s relative offensive competence and to not risk making a thinner depth chart even worse. What this discussion really reinforces is that the Mets should’ve done more than just add Rivera to the catching picture this offseason, but here we are.
Assuming the Mets come to a similar conclusion, Rivera will head back to Triple-A Syracuse whenever the season finally gets underway. He’ll almost certainly get some major league time at some point, where he’ll hopefully provide the same level of replacement level catching he has in his previous stints with the Mets.