'Freak' Reynaldo Rivera put on show at TigerTown

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Reynaldo Rivera

Reynaldo Rivera's passion for baseball began in the most humble surroundings, at age 4 in the streets of Puerto Rico.

His dad would spray-paint bases, and set up four cones for agility drills.

"And my neighbors hated it!" Rivera said, laughing, over the phone Tuesday afternoon in an interview with The Detroit News.

Fifteen years later, he's about to become a millionaire, having been selected by the Tigers in the second round, No. 57 overall, during Monday's opening day of the Major League Baseball draft.

The slot value for the pick is $1,148,400.

Rivera, a sophomore star at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., already has talked to Tigers representatives, and expects to sign following a monster season on the JUCO circuit, one that ended with a hot streak for the ages en route to a national championship.

Drafted by the Chicago Cubs last year in the 25th round, the money he was seeking -- about $500,000 – wasn't there, so he returned to school, and batted .438 with 20 home runs and 77 RBIs, including .584 with a 1.087 slugging percentage (slugging, not OPS) in conference play.

"He's a freak," said his coach, Jeff Johnson.

And Johnson's had his share of "freaks" over the years, including Jose Bautista and Russell Martin.

"And this guy," said Johnson, "has got a chance to be as good as any of them."

"No promises," Rivera said, with a sheepish chuckle.

There's plenty of promise surrounding Rivera, even though MLB.com prospect rankings had him ranked nearly 100 spots worse than where he was drafted.

The first thing you notice about him is he's huge, 6-foot-6 and nearly 250 pounds. He's always been big, about 5-7 in sixth grade, a whopping 6-3 a year later, 6-4 in eighth grade, and up to 6-6 in ninth grade.

He's always been the biggest kid on the block.

"They always had to ask for my social security," he said. "They thought I wasn't the age I was."

From the International Baseball Academy and High School in Puerto Rico, he arrived two years ago, at just 17, at a junior college in Florida, based on blind faith by Johnson, who had a connection in Puerto Rico who tipped him off.

Reynaldo Rivera

As a freshman, the left-handed slugger, who then weighed around 230, batted .397 with 10 home runs and 67 RBIs, playing mostly right field and left field.

This season, up to 250, he played mostly first base, because Chipola was stacked in the outfield and didn't have a first baseman. Johnson said don't let the physical stature fool you. He's athletic for his size, with a good, strong, right-handed arm. He even stole three bases last year, and four more this season. He played basketball in high school.

There were several teams interested in Rivera, including the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks.

But the Tigers pounced, perhaps earlier than most expected. But, hey, when you see something you like, you take it. And the Tigers have seen more than enough of Rivera, who, during his team's state tournament – conveniently, at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla. – put on a power display several Detroit front-office folks won't soon forget. In one game, he hit a home run to right field that would've cleared the old batting cages. Those who've been around TigerTown don't recall many, outside of maybe Prince Fielder, hitting a ball that far.

Rivera humbly calls it one of his top 10 in distance, some 450 feet.

"He was putting on a show," Johnson said. "It's gonna be scary down the road."

And it's not just the power. His plate discipline is one of his biggest strengths, Johnson said, and it often was to his peril at the JUCO level, where they call pitches four or five inches off the plate a strike. He knows the zone, and often got burned by the generosity.

Rivera, 19, this season started a bit slow, but made an adjustment in the second third, using more legs, which, in his case, might as well be tree trunks. And he took off. During one memorable stretch, he was 25-for-33.

Then came the JUCO World Series, in Grand Junction, Colo.

Hudson Belinsky, a writer for Baseball America, tweeted Monday night that one scout called Rivera the best JUCO player he'd ever seen. Bryce Harper played JUCO.

During Chipola's seven-game run to the national championship, Rivera had 12 hits, five home runs and 14 RBIs. Six of those RBIs came in one game. That performance, coupled with the legendary lumbering in Lakeland, was enough to convince the Tigers.

"That was one of the best performances," Rivera said of the zone he was in at the World Series. "And was the best thing I've ever had – until now."

Scouts flocked all season to Chipola's games, given its loaded roster, which had two more draft picks in the first five rounds.

At any given time, 20 to 25 scouts might've been at a Chipola game.

And Rivera, as much as anyone, took full advantage of the exposure. He had a private workout with the Tigers in Lakeland on Sunday, the day before the draft.

"He was a guy that had some pro interest out of high school," Johnson said. "He just needed some development. You could see the raw tools.

"He did a great job for us, and he hasn't even scratched the surface from where he'll be three or four years from now."


Twitter @tonypaul1984