Notes: Rivera's one goal; Keller 'ready'

March 28th, 2021

could not contain his smile when asked what his goal is for 2021.

There’s only one.

“I want to go to the big leagues,” Rivera said. “That is my goal.”

And he could be on his way, at least sometime in 2021. The third-base prospect and a non-roster invite, has seen his name rise in the mix of Royals depth pieces for this season with a solid spring. Rivera started his second consecutive game at third base on Saturday and lined a double to the center-field wall in the Royals’ 6-6 tie with the Brewers at Surprise Stadium. Rivera’s slashing .316/.333/.526 with one homer in 38 at-bats after his 1-for-3 day at the plate.

“I’m more aggressive and seeing pitches better,” Rivera said Saturday morning in a Zoom conversation. “I’m focused on putting the ball in play every single at-bat. Concentrating on that, and just working on hitting the ball to the middle of the field, using my hands. Be on time with every pitch.”

That approach has turned heads in camp. Royals manager Mike Matheny said earlier this week that Rivera has been intentional about applying advice that the coaching staff presented him last spring.

“There are a couple guys who haven’t had the attention they’ve deserved, and Emmanuel’s one of them,” Matheny said earlier this week. “Consistent hard-hit balls, and he’s done a nice job at third base, as well. But it’s the at-bats that have stood out to me. … It’s fun when you throw something out to a young player, ‘Here’s something that’s small and may seem insignificant to you, but it means something,’ and you watch them think about it and then go apply it, and then it becomes part of who he is and part of his routine. The way he’s working, the way he’s preparing, the way he’s thinking, the way he’s interacting, it’s improved so much from a year ago.”

Even Rivera’s outs have featured loud contact, like the ball he hit on the screws in the second inning Saturday right to second baseman Keston Hiura for a double play. Rivera’s spring performance is coming off a solid winter ball season in Puerto Rico, his native country, where he hit .292/.342/.523 across 73 plate appearances. He also had a hit and run scored in the Caribbean Series for Puerto Rico.

“Honestly, winter ball helped me a lot,” Rivera said. “I like to play in my country because I’m playing with a lot of guys that have a lot of years in baseball. And they helped me, too.”

Matheny has seen increased confidence, better preparation and better focus from Rivera this spring to go along with his solid approach at the plate. Part of that is because of the winter ball experience against higher-level pitching, as Rivera hasn’t seen time above Double-A, where he hit .258 in 2019. He’s likely on track for a Triple-A assignment this year, but is a depth option if the Royals need help at the hot corner.

“He’s showing us everything,” Matheny said. “He’s put together probably as good of an offensive spring as anybody we’ve had. The way that he’s hit the ball hard, watching some defensive plays just kind of verified that this guy’s doing the right things to keep moving forward and stay in the conversation if we need help.”

Keller settles down after long first
In his final Cactus League start, Brad Keller faced seven batters in the first inning and allowed two runs on three hits and one walk -- but the right-hander retired the next 10 batters to strike out six in four innings Saturday.

“Overall, I felt pretty good about it,” Keller said. “Felt like I battled out of it pretty good, just left a pitch that caught more plate to [Daniel] Vogelbach when I knew he was swinging. Wanted to go a little bit more in right there, but after that I felt like I settled down and limited the bleeding right there.”

Keller started to get early contact with his sinker in the second and third innings, which helped keep his pitch count down as he avoided deep counts -- he also said he felt like he could have gone more than four innings. But as he looks toward Thursday’s Opening Day start at Kauffman Stadium, Keller didn’t hesitate.

“I feel ready to go,” Keller said. “My body is ready to go, arm is ready to go. Mentally, I’m ready. Today was just another fine-tune.”

Around the horn
• Utilityman Hanser Alberto continues to impress the Royals with his defense, as he made another heads-up play in the fifth inning Saturday to nab Avisaíl García at home on a quick one-hop grounder.

“If it’s hit close to him, he’s going to make a play,” Matheny said. “Very accurate arm. Has a great internal clock, whether we put him at short or third, he has a good feel of relation of time and space with the runner. Just looks like a ballplayer no matter where you put him.”

• Reliever Josh Staumont allowed a solo home run to Lorenzo Cain and walked Jackie Bradley Jr. to start the sixth inning, but he struck out the next three batters to get out of the inning. Staumont, who relied heavily on his curveball, then retired the Brewers in order in the seventh to get through two innings. Pitching prospect Jon Heasley followed Staumont and pounded the zone, striking out four in two perfect innings to finish the game.

• Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. was 1-for-1 with a run scored in Saturday’s Minor League game against the Rangers, while catching prospect MJ Melendez launched a home run in the Royals’ 3-0 win (four innings). Three Royals pitchers held the Rangers to one hit -- Scott Blewett threw two perfect innings, Ronald Bolaños added 1 1/3 perfect innings and Tyler Zuber allowed one hit and one walk in two-thirds of an inning.