Rivas a strong contender for roster spot

Rivas vies for Major League roster

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Luis Rivas admits that it seems almost as if it were another career.

The now 28-year-old Rivas was then a young infielder in the Twins organization. He had been the Rookie of the Year in the Venezuelan Winter League in 1998. Two years later, he was playing in the Major League Baseball Futures Game. The next year, he was a top five prospect in the farm system.

He looked as if he were going to go places.

Rivas became Minnesota's starting second baseman in 2001 and was slated to start again in 2002, before a broken wrist on the second day of the season forced him out for two months. It proved to be a turning point in his career.

His numbers since then would suggest that he never recovered. And by the end of his 10-year tenure in the Twins organization, which ended after the '05 season, Rivas had never transitioned from prospect to legitimate Major League talent.

After one-year stints in both the Rays and Indians organizations, Rivas signed a Minor League contract with the Pirates back in December. At the time, the signing was seen as little more than an assurance of maintaining enough infield depth in the high levels of their Minor League system.

But now -- with less than two weeks until the Pirates have to set their Opening Day roster -- Rivas has made a hefty push towards earning one of those five bench spots. Little fanfare or not, he has broken out of the pack and turned some heads this spring.

"It feels good because they are giving me a chance," said Rivas, a native of La Guaira, Venezuela. "I'm just going to take this chance and go out there and do my thing."

Rivas doesn't need to get any more specific than talking about doing his "thing." He's showcased just what that's meant over the past month.

"Luis is a fierce competitor. He works hard and goes about his business," manager John Russell said. "He's in great shape. He's moving very well. He plays the game the right way. I'm very pleased with how he came in to camp, and I'm very pleased with what he's done so far."

It would be hard not to be.

Although he had an 0-for-4 day on Tuesday, Rivas entered the game with 12 hits in 31 at-bats this spring. The infielder has now hit safely in all but two of the 13 games he's played this spring, and Tuesday was the first time Rivas had not reached base in a Spring Training game.

On Sunday, his seventh-inning double keyed a game-winning four-run rally. One day later, another Rivas double began another offensive rally for the Pirates. And not to mention, his defensive play at second has been dazzling as of late.

"I've gotten a chance and I'm just trying to go out there and play hard," Rivas said. "I'm going to try and work hard and keep working with my swing. I think that's helped me a lot."

Russell will attest to that, noting that the work that Rivas did last season with Cleveland's Triple-A hitting coach Dave Myers has rejuvenated the production at the plate.

Russell, who managed Rivas in the Twins organization back in 1999 and 2000, said that he first noticed a change in Rivas' approach at the plate last year when he managed his Triple-A Ottawa club against Rivas' Buffalo club. Rivas was no longer swinging over so many balls. His swing looked more compact, more under control, more fluid.

Rivas has maintained that adjustment so far this spring, making Russell think back to the young, talented prospect he coached back at Double-A New Britain.

"He looks like he did when I saw him with the Twins -- agile, having fun, athletic, quick. And now his swing is there," Russell said. "He looks pretty good right now. Also, with his attitude and the shape he's in, he's really competed well."

Rivas will continue to vie for the middle infield backup spot with Josh Wilson, a Pittsburgh native that the Pirates claimed off waivers in December. But there is little arguing that up to this point, Rivas has stood out.

The final roster decision isn't expected to be determined until the final week of camp. But Rivas would have been hard-pressed to put himself in better position at this point to get it.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.