MLB.com reports that Juan Rivera broke the tibia in his left leg while playing winter ball in Venezuela.
It’s too soon to project how the injury might affect Rivera’s 2007 season and beyond, but let’s assume for the moment he’ll miss at least part of next year.
Rivera projected to pretty much perform the same role as 2006, the fourth outfielder and DH, but figured to assume more left-field time from Garret Anderson and perhaps Vlad Guerrero, both who were less mobile due to injury. The arrival of free-agent Gary Matthews, Jr. meant less time in CF, where Rivera had less experience and Chone Figgins often roams.
But Matthews in his career has also seen plenty of time in LF (129 games) and RF (214), so it’s entirely possible that he’ll cover for GA and Vladi while Figgins returns to CF.
Although the Angels could carry another outfielder such as Reggie Willitts or Tommy Murphy until Rivera heals, they could also opt to carry another bat who would DH most of the time. The main candidate for that role would be Kendry Morales. Assuming the Angels don’t trade anyone, Casey Kotchman is the likely first baseman in 2007. Morales is nowhere near the 1B Kotchman is, so to get Kendry’s bat in the lineup DH would be the likely slot.
Other possibilities might include Morales playing a lot of LF during spring training, or even Dallas McPherson, who could also fill the DH slot when not playing 3B. It might also improve the chance that Darin Erstad returns for another year, if the Angels are satisfied his health is good enough to get a decent performance out of him.
Rivera’s injury is no reason to push the panic button and make a short-sighted trade. Injuries are the reason an organization builds a deep farm system. What it does mean is that the Angels, who’ve yet to secure the “big bat” promised last fall by owner Arte Moreno, will now have to rely even more on their prospects. Kotchman, Morales and McPherson will need to fulfill their potential to give the Angels’ excellent pitching staff some breathing room in close games.
The injury also evokes a memory of the horrific broken leg Justin Baughman suffered while playing winter ball in Mexico after the 1998 season. The fact of the matter is that teams have no contractual right to tell a player what he does in the off-season, unless those restrictions are negotiated — which means the player will expect compensation for the restriction. Latin players in particular won’t give up winter ball because it means so much to play for their home country.
Baughman was in Mexico learning second base. A career shortstop, the Angels force-fed him into the 2B role after Randy Velarde was hurt. Justin collided with a right-fielder and missed all of 1999. Speed was always his asset, and he was never the same after the injury.
Other players go to winter ball as a type of rehab assignment. That’s why Casey Kotchman is playing in Puerto Rico now. After the 2003 season, Bobby Jenks played winter to make up for lost time after missing much of that year with a sore elbow. It was in April 2004 that he suffered a stress fracture in the elbow, eventually requiring surgery to insert pins to hold it together.
Life is a risk, and so is baseball as a profession. Just because a player sits at home doesn’t mean he won’t have an injury at some point in his career. Sitting around getting fat or not honing their skills doesn’t do the team any good. That’s just part of the game.
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