Some 18 months ago, in the aftermath of a hurricane that caused more than 3,000 deaths and wreaked havoc on an island that still is recuperating from the devastation, young Erik Rivera wondered if he would have to change course.
He’d longed to become a professional baseball player since he was 10, spurred by the encouragement of his parents. He’d watched so many from Puerto Rico put his native island on the map. He wanted to be counted among them.
But after Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered his home in September 2017, leaving the country in such disrepair that residents in the farthest reaches didn’t have power restored until this year, Rivera wasn’t so sure he’d get the chance.
“I thought baseball was over,” Rivera, on the phone from his repaired home in Caguas, said in Spanish. “After everything we went through, I thought baseball was over for me.”
But baseball isn’t over for the 18-year-old prospect. The Angels, with their fourth-round pick in the amateur player draft, on Tuesday selected Rivera out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, which has churned out the likes of Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and Detroit Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez.
The Angels, enamored by Rivera’s prowess as a left-handed pitcher and left-handed-hitting outfielder, announced him as a two-way player.
They first made a splash when they committed to Shohei Ohtani, last year’s American League rookie of the year, in December 2017. They furthered that endeavor last summer by encouraging minor leaguers Jared Walsh (now with the Angels as a first baseman and mop-up reliever) and Bo Way to add pitching back into their repertoires. They also drafted outfielder and right-handed pitcher William English as a two-way player. Kaleb Cowart, the Angels’ top pick of the 2010 draft who has not lived up to the billing, is back at triple-A trying to become a two-way player.
Now Rivera, who said he might have been the only two-way-playing senior on his home island this season, is expected to join their ranks. He is committed to Florida International University but seems poised to spurn the college program to turn pro.
“I just wanted the opportunity to play both positions, which the Angels gave me,” Rivera said.
His abilities at the plate are still emerging — he has wielded the bat with raw power but had issues making consistent contact — but his play in the outfield drew rave reviews. The arm strength he showed there is what nudged Rivera onto the mound on a more regular basis. In the past, he pitched or hit, depending on the team’s needs. After he continued to show athleticism in the outfield last summer, he received feedback encouraging him to dedicate himself as a two-way player full time.
Rivera now possesses a fastball that can touch 96 mph and a hard curveball. Scouts considered him one of the best left-handed pitching prospects from Puerto Rico. Although he’s still working on controlling his pitches, the Angels believe he can refine his skill set with continued instruction.
“He has the opportunity to keep developing,” said Omar Rodriguez, who has been the Angels’ scout in Puerto Rico since 2009. “He’s very dedicated to his work, he’s tireless and attentive. That’s what will help him to get better. Time will tell what kind of opportunities he’ll have in the big leagues.”
Cozart may need some time
Infielder Zack Cozart, placed on the injured list last week, said Tuesday at Angel Stadium that he has had trouble shaking discomfort in his left shoulder. He still isn’t swinging a bat and does not have a timeline for when he will return.
“Before the surgery on my shoulder, I’d played my whole career with it super loose,” Cozart said. “That’s probably the main issue right now, that the surgery is working but instead of being super loose, it’s super tight. So mechanically, it’s throwing me off a little bit.”
More draft picks
The Angels drafted seven other pitchers Tuesday, all right-handers: Jack Kochanowicz, 18, Harriton High School (Pa.); Garrett Stallings, 21, University of Tennessee; Zach Peek, 21, Winthrop University; Davis Daniel, 21, Auburn University; Kyle Brnovich, 21, Elon University; Zach Linginfelter, 22, University of Tennessee; Chad Sykes, 23, North Carolina Greensboro.