SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic—Hector Olivera was a favorite among several scouts who have spent years following the Cuban national team.
There wasn't any question about his talent level then. The only concerns were the unknown, since Olivera, 29, missed the 2012-13 season due to a blood clot and as a result had not been seen outside of Cuba for a few years.
After watching Olivera at multiple open showcases and private workouts in the Dominican Republic, scouts are still excited about Olivera's potential to make an immediate impact on a major league team in 2015. Playing in a showcase game Wednesday, Olivera had another strong showing, going 3-for-3 with a walk, a hit by pitch and two doubles. By Olivera's standards, that may have been an off day for him, given that he hit two home runs in an open showcase game last week. Olivera’s camp has informed teams that Wednesday would be his final open showcase. He’s expected to continue holding private workouts, though with his free agency likely coming any day and spring training approaching, he’s expected to sign soon once he’s officially a free agent.
Major League Baseball's annual international amateur showcase for the top July 2 players was Monday and Tuesday, so there were already hundreds of scouts in town, including several high-level executives who went to Olivera's showcase on Wednesday. The team with the most notable presence was the Dodgers, who had president Andrew Friedman and vice president Josh Byrnes in attendance, with Friedman at one point walking down the first-base line to take video of Olivera. Unlike top officials from other clubs at Olivera's showcase, Friedman and Byrnes were not at MLB's July 2 showcase.
The Athletics (assistant GM Dan Kantrovitz, special assistant Chris Pittaro), Padres (senior advisor Logan White) and Giants (vice president John Barr, among several others) were the other teams with a notable presence. They have all been linked to Olivera, along with the Braves, who had special assistant Gordon Blakeley in attendance, and the majority of international scouting directors were here as well.
Olivera didn't run the 60-yard dash, though he's run anywhere from 6.65 to 6.8 seconds at previous open showcases. Olivera is a big man at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, but doesn't have the monster 70 to 80 raw power of Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes or Yasmany Tomas. That's never been his game. Olivera did show plus bat speed and a loose, easy swing with good bat path through the hitting zone and a mature approach that was evident even in BP. He drove the ball with authority and out of the park to all fields. The showcase was at the Dominican air force base, where the fences are short and scouts warn that can make for a deceptive evaluation, but he hit several balls that would have been out at any major league stadium, including one blast to straightaway center field. In three rounds, he hit around 10 balls out, mostly to his pull side, showing the power to be a 20-home run threat.
When Olivera was dominating in Cuba and in international competitions, he was one of the most well-rounded players on the island. What stood out Wednesday was Olivera's mature hitting approach, pitch recognition and lack of swing-and-miss, a strong contrast with Tomas. Olivera stayed within the strike zone, made consistent contact and hit the ball hard to all fields. After getting hit by a pitch in his first at-bat, Olivera stayed at the plate and they reset the count. On the next pitch he saw, Olivera ripped a breaking ball for a line-drive double.
In his third plate appearance, Olivera fouled off the first pitch, then hit a fastball up in the zone on the outer third to the opposite field for a line-drive single. His next time up, Olivera worked a walk, then stayed at the plate and the count reset. On a 2-0 fastball at the thighs, Olivera kept his hands inside the ball and drove a double into the right-center field gap. After reaching base in all five plate appearances, that was the end of the day for Olivera.
Olivera was primarily a second baseman in Cuba, though several teams are looking at him as a third baseman, a position he has some history with when he was starting his career and should be able to play comfortably if a team wanted to put him there. On Wednesday, he played exclusively at third base, where he made all the routine plays, including the start of a 5-4-3 double play. He ranged well to his left, making a solid play to get a ground ball hit toward the shortstop. Later in the game he made a diving stab to catch a line-drive toward the third-base line, which wasn't a highlight-reel grab but still showed quick reactions and good coordination to snare the ball to his right.
Olivera looked like a man among boys. To some degree, that literally was true, since there were several teenagers on the field. Yet there were also several Cuban players in their mid-20s and even 30s on the field, and the difference between Olivera and everyone else was striking.
Yes, there is still uncertainty surrounding Olivera's health and ability to play the field every day. During his final season (2013-14) in Cuba, Olivera played 29 games at second base and spent most of the 90-game season at DH, so there are questions about how he will respond to playing in the field every day over a 162-game season. Strictly in terms of the talent he's shown, both in Cuba and since arriving in the Dominican Republic, there are teams that project him as an above-average player who could hit at the top or in the middle of a major league lineup as soon as he signs.
That talent level is why teams are under the impression that the asking price from Olivera's camp will be Rusney Castillo money, if not in total dollars than at least in average annual value. Castillo in August signed what's essentially a six-year, $72 million contract with an opt-out after five years, while Tomas in December signed for six years, $68.5 million with an opt-out after four years. An asking price is just that. You can ask for whatever you want. I don't know what Olivera will sign for, nor do I care to speculate, per my own general policy on unsigned Cuban players, for a variety of reasons.
Yet, on talent alone, Olivera was a better player than Castillo and Tomas when they were in Cuba. Olivera is 29 while Castillo is 27 and Tomas 24, so that works against him, but Olivera is the same age as most major league free agents. But if I had my choice of one of those three players, assuming the team doctors give him a thumbs up, I would take Olivera over Castillo or Tomas. From talking with several scouts about it, I'm not alone in that opinion, either.
More On Hector Olivera
• Aug. 26, 2014: Rankings, Scouting Reports On Top Players Still In Cuba
• Sept. 24, 2014: Hector Olivera Leaves Cuba
• Dec. 23, 2014: Top Teams For Hector Olivera
• Jan. 14, 2015: BA’s Ben Badler On Jung-Ho Kang, Hector Olivera
• Jan. 26, 2015: Hector Olivera Showcase Report
• Jan. 27, 2015: Hector Olivera Showcase Video
• Jan. 31, 2015: Hector Olivera Works Out For Top Braves Officials
• Feb. 4, 2015: Mariners President, GM Scout Hector Olivera, Andy Ibanez
• Feb. 6, 2015: Hector Olivera Hits Two Home Runs In Open Showcase Game