NEW YORK -- For years, infielder T.J. Rivera worked his way up the Mets' Minor League ladder in relative anonymity, an undrafted free agent who hit well above .300 at nearly every stop on the farm. In 2016, Rivera finally received his big league chance, batting .333 in 33 games. He followed that up with a .290 average in 73 games this season, as recently as July putting himself in contention for a significant '18 role with the Mets.
Then the ulnar collateral ligament in Rivera's right elbow snapped. He underwent Tommy John surgery in September, casting doubt over his status at a time when the Mets are actively searching for second-base help.
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Mets officials are treating Rivera cautiously, estimating a rehab process that could leak into midsummer. Rivera is more optimistic, harboring hope that he can return as soon as Opening Day.
"That's what my goal is," Rivera said this week in a telephone interview. "Me personally, I'm looking to be ready right around the beginning of the season. If there's no setbacks, I'm hoping that's the outcome. But I think it just takes time to see how it feels when I start throwing. I've never had really any surgery, so it's kind of a weird position for me. But my expectations are to be ready to go around the beginning of the season."
Rivera's understanding is that unlike pitchers, who generally need 12 to 18 months to recover from Tommy John surgery, position players can make it back to game action in as little as seven months. For Rivera, who underwent the procedure on Sept. 14, that would have him ready to go in the early weeks of the regular season.
But it does not change the fact that the Mets' front office must operate under the assumption that Rivera won't be ready. Assistant general manager John Ricco said this week that the club sees Asdrubal Cabrera as its starting third baseman, making second base one of its target areas to improve.
The Mets do have some in-house options, but Wilmer Flores is more of a platoon bat and Gavin Cecchini has yet to distinguish himself at the big league level. Had Rivera been healthy, a chance might have existed for him to bull his way into additional playing time. Instead, he is unlikely to be anything more than a backup behind whomever the Mets acquire.
"It's tough, because I know the team has to have someone ready to play," Rivera said. "I get that they don't know where I'm going to be at, and how my arm's going to react to the surgery. I understand that. And it's frustrating because I know the position I play is one of the positions that they're looking to fill. I hope they do still see me as a possibility."
For now, Rivera is working three to four times per week with a physical therapist near his home in Alabama, where he and his wife are expecting their first child in December. He is concentrating on leg and core exercises to keep his body strong for when doctors clear him to begin a throwing program, which will continue into Spring Training.
"I know they're being realistic and they're looking at, well, I just had surgery," Rivera said. "But in my mind, I'm hoping to be back and be 100 percent right around the season. I don't know exactly when that will be. It's kind of frustrating because it comes at a bad time. But I'm just trying to stay positive and keep working, and hopefully they haven't really written me off yet."