He's the best free agent left on the market, but Cuban second baseman Hector Olivera offers plenty of mystery to go with his potential.
In Monday's rundown of potential impact rookies from Cuba, I left out one name: Hector Olivera. The 29-year-old infielder, who was officially declared a free agent on Friday, is unsigned at this writing, and while he could potentially command a pretty penny, lingering questions about his health and a sudden change in representation illustrate the uncertainty surrounding him.
Olivera, whose father (Hector Olivera Sr.) also starred in Serie Nacional, put up eye-opening numbers in his 10 seasons with Santiago de Cuba. Only once did he finish a season with a batting average below .315, and that was back in 2005–06. He posted an OPS above 1.000 three times from 2007 to '12, and his lowest mark in that span was .924; during his Cuban career, he hit a combined .323/.407/.505.
During that time, Olivera stood out on the international circuit, starring for the Cuban national team in the 2007 and 2009 Baseball World Cups, 2008 Olympics (where Cuba won silver; he hit .353/.353/.588 and played first base with Yuliesky Gourriel at second), 2009 World Baseball Classic (.313/.389/.500, playing second while Gourriel played third) and 2010 Intercontinental Cup (where he won MVP honors with a .516/.531/.806 showing). In the wake of the 2009 WBC, Baseball America ranked Olivera as Cuba's fourth-best player behind current major leaguers Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, as well as Gourriel.
For all of those positives, Olivera missed the 2012–13 season (including the 2013 WBC) due to thrombosis in the biceps of his left (non-throwing) arm, a serious condition that can cause blood clots. While he returned to hit .316/.412/.47 in 2013–14, he slipped from 17 homers in 264 PA to seven in 273 PA and played in just 29 games at second base, with the rest mainly at DH. Last summer, his ranking via Baseball America slipped to sixth among players still in Cuba, with Ben Badler writing, "[H]e's the most challenging player to evaluate on this list given his health issues."
Last September, Olivera defected; at the time, Badler called the 6'2", 195-pound second baseman "one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba, showing a combination of hitting ability, power, speed and size" and also noted his long absence from the international scene (where MLB scouts have their only chance to scout Cubans in game activity). FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel, who attended his workouts, filed a very thorough scouting report which included current and future grades on the 20–80 scouting scale, as well as a more thorough description and the suggestion that in the near-term, he could be better than Yasmany Tomas and Rusney Castillo, though his long-term forecast is more of a concern:
Hit: 45/55, Game Power: 45/50+, Raw Power: 55/55, Speed: 55/55, Field: 50/50, Throw: 55/55, FV: 50
There's undeniable talent here: Olivera has above average bat speed, bat control, plate discipline and raw power, which is to all fields and he has a history of getting to in games. He's an above average runner that can play second base or third base and has an above average arm. That's an above average everyday player with the statistical track record to give you some confidence that he'll perform in the big leagues, but there's real risk of him staying on the field regularly and not having his tools regress in a few years.
While Olivera's throwing during his workouts was sound, a report via Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan suggests that he has a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Thus, he could need Tommy John surgery, which for a position player generally takes six to nine months of recovery—a full season, basically. Olivera's trainer and representative at the time, Rudy Santin (who is not certified by the MLBPA), refuted reports of the injury, but in the short time since then, Santin has been replaced by Greg Genske of the Legacy Agency.
Despite having suddenly embarked on a rebuilding tack this past winter by shedding big salaries instead of taking them on, the Braves were believed to be the favorites for Olivera, given that Santin also represents outfielder Dian Toscano, a Cuban defector who signed a four-year, $6 million deal with Atlanta in December, and that he represented Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez when he signed with the Yankees in 1982. They were said to be in "ongoing conversations" as of Monday, but there's no telling whether the agent switch has changed that, even with a report downplaying their interest circulating, as it may just be a negotiation tactic. The Padres, Dodgers, Yankees, Giants and Athletics have also been linked to Olivera, though recent reports suggest at least the latter two have backed off.
Prior to the agent switch and UCL-related reports, Santin was said to be expecting a deal in excess of $70 million—in the neighborhood of those of Castillo (seven years, $72.5 million) and Tomas (six years, $68.5 million)—though reports from anonymous executives featured figures in the $45–50 million range. McDaniel, who similarly believes Olivera will wind up with a three- or four-year deal in the range of $10–12 million per year, aired his suspicions with regard to Santin, potentially shedding light on the representation switch:
Go read through MLB Trade Rumors and find another major league free agent whose buzz is coming directly or indirectly from the agent with swings this wild in the projections this close to when he signs. If you're getting paid, you don't have to tell everyone about it…
…I still haven't found one executive who thinks Olivera will get or is worth $70 million, but yesterday one told me he'd heard Olivera’s camp was 'disappointed with the early bidding' and that he believed these reports were a ploy to try to get the Dodgers to up their bid.
The Dodgers' involvement is interesting on many levels. In addition to having a seemingly bottomless reserve of cash—not to mention a pair of Cuban infielders who don't fit their current plans left over from the previous regime in Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena—they're a team that is well-positioned to withstand the possibility that Olivera needs surgery. For one thing, their incumbents at second and third base, Howie Kendrick and Juan Uribe, will both hit free agency after the season. For another, their recent signings of a gaggle of pitchers with lengthy injury histories—most prominently Brett Anderson, Brandon Beachy, Brandon McCarthy and Dustin McGowan—suggest that the new front office believes it has an edge in injury prevention and management.
That's not to say that the Dodgers will land Olivera, or even that we'll see him in the majors this year. He's a gamble for any team, and at the moment, all we really know is that there are a whole lot of unknowns here.