Thursday, August 18, 2016

Felipe Rivero - Start to Finish

Felipe Javier Rivero, 25, was born in, fittingly enough, San Felipe, Venezuela.

The lefty signed with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 as a starter. In the minors, Felipe was a strikeout per inning guy, giving up a little more than three walks per nine with a 3.38 ERA and 1.088 WHIP. He played in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game and was added to the Rays' 40-man roster at the end of 2012 as one of their Top Thirty prospects.

On February 13th, 2014, Rivero was traded to the Washington Nationals, along with José Lobatón and Drew Vettleson, in exchange for Nate Karns. Rivero suffered from elbow inflammation that season, and was limited to 14 games started. The Nationals transitioned Rivero into a relief pitcher during spring training in 2015, likely in response to the elbow.

Felipe Rivero (photo Charles LeClaire/USA Today)

Rivero opened the 2015 season with the Syracuse Chiefs of the Class AAA International League, but wasn't there for long. On April 17th, 2015, Rivero made his major league debut by mopping up a 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, but went on the DL with gastrointestinal bleeding a few days later. After he recovered, the Nationals promoted Rivero to the major leagues from Syracuse at the start of June.

With Jonathan Papelbon suspended and Drew Storen injured, Rivero converted two save opportunities during the final week of the season and finished the campaign with a 2-1-2/2.79 slash. The Nats were considering him as a potential closer with some more experience, but Shawn Kelley seems to have taken that bull by the horns in DC, making Rivero expendable.

He struggled for Washington in 2016, especially in the early going. Rivero posted a 4.63 ERA at the end of July, although his peripherals were fine - 7.8 hits, 9.6 K and 2.7 BB per nine with a 1.168 WHIP. But his ERA was tainted by a June meltdown, and we all know how one very bad outing can skewer a relievers slash. In 13 outings after that beat down, Rivero came back to post a 0.93 ERA and knock a couple of runs off his tote board.

Felipe did change his toolkit - he ditched the two seamer and used the slider less, with a huge jump in changeups and a bump in four seamers. Oddly, that turned him into a reverse split guy - after no noticeable diff in lefty/righty results in 2015, suddenly LH were raking him, hitting .324 to RH .179. So that's Uncle Ray's challenge, although to date, his Pirates splits have been markedly better at ..231-L/.158-R in a small sample size.

Rivero - bridge man, closer, starter...? (photo Joe Guzzy/Pirates)

Just before the deadline, the Nationals traded Rivero, 25, along with Taylor Hearn, to the Pirates for The Shark, Mark Melancon. The Bucs were enamored by Felipe's big arm, as his FB averages 96 and touches 99, augmented by the plus change of pace and a good if inconsistent slider. Even with his off year, his MLB career ERA is 3.38. And team control came into play too, as he's not slated to hit free agency until 2022.

For the time being, Pittsburgh is using him as their seventh inning bullpen link to carry the torch for Neftali Feliz and Tony Watson. He's been pretty sharp, too. In nine outings covering 8-2/3 IP, he's given up only a couple of unearned runs with an eye-opening 16 K but an equally high six walks. His changeup has been his money pitch. But that could change next year.

One thought is that the Pirates may try Rivero as a starter during 2017 camp, ala Juan Nicasio. The big advantage he has over Nicasio is that he has a three-pitch arsenal - fastball, changeup and slider. The FO also likes that he's a lefty, now that Frankie, Jeff Locke and Jon Niese have all departed the rotation by hook or crook. Steven Brault, The Lobster and Drew Hutchison are the AAA southpaws, and only Brault looks like he'll get a long look for 2017.

It'll be interesting to see what the future holds for Felipe in Pittsburgh. Start? Finish? Or somewhere in between?

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