The attention that Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada has received is well deserved. Moncada, a 19-year-old switch-hitter, is the best teenage talent to leave Cuba since Jorge Soler, earning rare widespread praise from the international scouting community.
Aside from Moncada, second baseman Hector Olivera is the best Cuban player out there. Olivera is also right up there with Yasiel Puig as one of the most fascinating players to ever leave the island, a mixture of premium talent, performance, health issues, a lack of recent looks and age.
Tomas defected before we published our rankings of the top players still in Cuba in August, so he was not eligible for that list. Had he been eligible, I would have put Tomas behind Olivera, who I ranked as the No. 6 player still in Cuba.
That, of course, comes with a huge caveat: Scouts have not been able to see Olivera play in person recently. Due to a blood disorder, Olivera missed the entire 2012-13 season in Cuba. He didn’t participate in any international tournaments the previous summer, and he hasn’t been on the Cuban national team since then, though he did return to play in Serie Nacional for Santiago De Cuba during the 2013-14 season, which ended in April.
Olivera still needs to obtain his residency paperwork (likely through Haiti) and a specific license from the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), so he’s not eligible to sign just yet. While he hasn’t had an open showcase, that’s expected to change soon, with scouts eager to get a look at a player who was so intriguing to those who saw him years ago.
At around 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Olivera is a physical righthanded hitter with a loose, quick swing and a good hitting approach. He showed good power for a middle infielder, and given that several Cuban players have transformed their bodies and increased their power since leaving the island, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Olivera did the same. His size, athleticism and plus speed (at least at his peak) made him one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba.
He also killed it in Serie Nacional, with a five-year run as one of the league’s premier offensive threats beginning as a 22-year-old in the 2007-08 season:
Scouts watched Olivera excel several international tournaments, including the 2008 Olympics, the 2009 World Baseball Classic and the 2010 FISU World University Championships, where he was teammates on a stacked roster with Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, Leonys Martin and Alfredo Despaigne. Olivera won the MVP award at the 2010 World Cup.
From speaking with scouts who saw him at that time, had Olivera left Cuba then as 25-year-old, he would have been in high demand, with some turning him in as a middle-of-the-order hitter. After that, Olivera’s career slowed down. The blood condition, reported by the Cuban press as thrombosis in his left biceps, knocked him out of action for the 2012-13 season. He returned during the 2013-14 season and was still one of the league’s top performers, batting .316/.412/.474 with seven home runs, 38 walks and 25 strikeouts in 273 trips to the plate. He also spent most of the 90-game season at DH, with just 29 games at second base.
For teams looking to upgrade at second base (or third, another position Olivera could fill), the free agent alternatives aren’t very appealing, especially with fellow Cuban second baseman Jose Fernandez, the country’s No. 3 player, kicked off his Cuban team but widely believed to still be on the island. Moncada and Cuban second baseman Andy Ibanez are out there, but both are prospects who will need minor league time.
Olivera turns 30 in April, so we should expect some decline from him, but he’s definitely going straight to the major leagues after he signs. Tomas just signed for six years, $68.5 million with the ability to opt out of his contract with the Diamondbacks after four years. They’re at different ends of their career arcs, but given that Olivera is the better all-around player, he certainly shouldn’t come cheap.
Who are the teams most likely to sign Olivera? The ones that will be after him the most should have these things in common (aside from the obvious, which is money to sign him):
• A need at second base, or possibly third
• Scouts who have history watching Olivera going back to 2008-10
• Comfort with risk and uncertainty on a player with medical red flags
• Quantitative analysts that have favorable translations of Olivera’s Cuban performance data
The Nationals could also make sense—they fit all these categories—and they have a need at second base. They could re-sign free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, who became their everyday second baseman the last two months of 2014 after they traded to get him from the Indians. Right now they have Danny Espinosa, who’s coming off a .219/.283/.351 season. The Nationals are one of the best teams in the game and have few holes on their roster, but second base is one spot they can enhance.
I would keep at eye on the Nationals here. But from speaking with industry sources, three teams in particular have popped up in connection with Olivera.
3. New York Yankees
The Yankees re-signed Chase Headley this month to a four-year, $52 million contract, so they’re set at third base. Yet they also have a hole at second base after shipping Martin Prado to the Marlins. The long-term solution could be Moncada, with the Yankees looking like a favorite there having already gone over their 2014-15 bonus pool, owning the deepest pockets in the game and lacking young, impact talent at the upper levels of the system.
There’s no guarantee that Moncada will be a Yankee though, and even if he is, he’s not going to help in 2015, and maybe not in 2016 either. The Yankees could go with Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela at second base, but Olivera would be an upgrade over either player. Yankees international scouting director Donny Rowland has been around long enough to have seen Olivera in his prime, the Yankees haven’t spent much money this offseason and they are certainly a team that’s shown comfort giving big contracts to players in their 30s. If the Yankees want Olivera, he would be a good fit in New York.
2. San Diego Padres
Warning: By the time you have read this far into this story, the Padres’ roster may have already changed from the time you started. First-year general manager A.J. Preller has been busy with a creative overhaul of the organization. The outfield is stacked with big bats in Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton, with even a surplus now to sort through. Yonder Alonso is a solid player at first base, while the trade for Will Middlebrooks gives the Padres an option at third base and the Derek Norris trade gives them a catcher.
But second base is a clear area where they can upgrade. Jedd Gyorko was productive in 2013, but he hit just .210/.280/.313 in 2014 at age 25. Their OPS from second basemen ranked 27th in baseball. Olivera is the big, physical, athletic player with a track record of hitting that Preller has beefed up the Padres’ major league roster with, and fits the mold of players the Rangers went after in the draft under his recent watch. As the former Rangers international scouting director, Preller is quite familiar with Olivera.
And as for Olivera’s health issues, the Padres just traded for Kemp, who reportedly has two arthritic hips. The Padres probably didn’t know that before they agreed to the deal, but it’s not like Kemp had a track record of great health either. Padres ownership has given the Padres more financial resources to work with, which means they could be a serious contender for Olivera.
1. Oakland Athletics
The A’s have made a series of questionable moves going back to last summer, when they gave up one of the game’s true premium prospects in shortstop Addison Russell and even threw in a talented outfield prospect in Billy McKinney to pick up Cubs righthanders Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, then gave Cespedes with a year left on his contract to the Red Sox to rent Jon Lester for the stretch run.
Since then they’ve traded Samardzija, third baseman Josh Donaldson and outfielder Brandon Moss. The return on talent, especially for Donaldson and Moss, seems light, but the trades clear money off the books, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting Samardzija to command $9.5 million in arbitration, Moss $7.1 million and Donaldson $4.5 million, or about $21 million in all.
But the A’s aren’t in a complete tear-it-down rebuild. They signed DH Billy Butler for three years, $30 million in November. Brett Lawrie will replace Donaldson at third base. Some of the pitching they received in trades could help at the back of the rotation this year. Marcus Semien looks like their everyday shortstop, and an underrated breakout candidate. Center field and right field seem set with Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick.
Second base is a weakness in Oakland, though. Last year the A’s ranked last in the majors in OPS from the position, with most of the playing time going to Eric Sogard, who hit .223/.298/.268 in 117 games at age 28. The A’s just received second baseman Joe Wendle from the Indians, but he’s never played above Double-A and spent just 87 games there last year. Franklin Barreto, who they picked up from Toronto in the Donaldson deal, could be the longterm solution, but he’s going to the low Class A Midwest League next year and is a few seasons away from the majors.
With Sam Geaney leaving to become San Diego’s farm director, the A’s don’t currently have an international scouting director. But they do have history on Olivera. In November, the A’s hired Cardinals scouting director Dan Kantrovitz as an assistant GM, replacing Farhan Zaidi after he left to become the GM of the Dodgers. Kantrovitz had worked for the A’s before, running the team’s international scouting from 2009-11, which coincides with the peak of Olivera’s international career. The A’s also have director of player personnel Billy Owens and special assistant Chris Pittaro, their ace evaluators who travel all over the world to see players.
History also shows that A’s GM Billy Beane trusts his scouts on international players when there’s a big acquisition on the table. They gave Dominican righthander Michael Ynoa $4.25 million in 2008, at the time a record bonus for an international amateur. Before the Cuban market spiked, they gave a four-year, $36 million contract to Cespedes just before the 2012 season started.
While Olivera’s medical uncertainty could ding his stock for other teams who view him as a risk, it might be exactly what makes him all the more desirable to the A’s, who aren’t going to compete for the premium major league free agents. The dinged-up, high-reward player is the type of bet the A’s should be making.
So the A’s have an obvious need at second base, with about $21 million in arb-eligible players they just dumped, which means there is money to spend, as A’s assistant GM David Forst told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs earlier this month:
“We have that money to use if the right thing comes up. And that may be in December, that may be in February, it may be at the trade deadline, but we do have that money at our disposal. I hate to keep referring back to 2011-2012, but we did sign Yoenis Cespedes in February that year, adding $9 million to our payroll at a late time, when frankly I think we had an advantage because everyone had used up their payroll. I’m not here to say that guy is out there again in February, but it does give us some flexibility in the coming months.”
It would be no surprise if that player turned out to be Hector Olivera.