Second baseman Hector Olivera, one of the top players in Cuba, has defected to pursue a contract with a major league team, Baseball America has learned.
Olivera, 29, ranked as the No. 6 player still in Cuba by Baseball America last month, although that evaluation comes with a huge level of uncertainty given Olivera’s recent health history. Olivera had been a star on the Cuban national team, including at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where he ranked behind only Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel as the top Cuban prospects at the event. The next year, Olivera won the MVP award at the Intercontinental Cup.
However, Olivera missed the entire 2012-13 season and hasn’t played in any international tournaments since then, including the 2013 WBC. While it’s difficult to verify medical information on Cuban players, according to Cuban media reports, Olivera had thrombosis in his left biceps, a condition that blocks blood flow and can be serious.
Olivera returned this past season in 2013-14 (which ended in March) to play for Santiago De Cuba in Serie Nacional and still performed as one of the top hitters in the league, batting .316/.412/.474 in 273 plate appearances with seven home runs and more walks (38) than strikeouts (25). He didn’t play much in the field, however, spending 29 games at second base with the rest at DH.
At his best, Olivera (listed at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds) had been one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba, showing a combination of hitting ability, power, speed and size. In 2011-12, Olivera hit .341/.462/.626 with 17 home runs, 44 walks and 22 strikeouts in 214 plate appearances, ranking third in the league in slugging behind only Jose Abreu (now with the White Sox) and Alfredo Despaigne, and he ranked fourth in OBP.
He also won the home run derby at the 2012 all-star game and has displayed impressive power for a middle infielder. He showed his hitting ability with a batting average .315 or better in nine of his 10 seasons in Cuba and recorded more walks than strikeouts in his last eight seasons. During the 2007-08 season, Olivera stole 21 bases in 22 attempts, although he hasn’t been much of a threat on the bases since then, even before he was sidelined.
Olivera turns 30 in April and has played more than five seasons in Cuba, so he will be exempt from the bonus pools. He will need to establish residency in another country, obtain a specific unblocking license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the United States Department of the Treasury and be declared a free agent by Major League Baseball before he can sign. While there’s no clear timetable for that, given the track record of recent Cuban defectors obtaining their paperwork, it’s possible that Olivera will be able to sign this offseason, although that’s not a certainty.