When I ranked the top players still in Cuba in August, the one player I struggled with trying to find an appropriate spot for was Hector Olivera. All of our reports on Olivera from his days on the Cuban national team were exciting. In the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Olivera ranked as the No. 4 Cuban player at the tournament, behind Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes and Yulieski Gourriel.
Yet Olivera missed more than a full season due to a blood clot in his left arm. He returned in 2013-14 and hit well, but no scout had seen him outside of Cuba in a few years. Not only that, but Olivera played 29 games at second base last season and spent most of his time at DH. What's the appropriate place to rank a player who clearly was one of the most talented players in the country a few years ago, yet comes with so much uncertainty? As I wrote in Olivera's scouting report at the time, "he's the most challenging player to evaluate on this list given his health issues."
Take Jose Fernandez, the 26-year-old Cuban second baseman with outstanding plate discipline and hand-eye coordination to seldom swing and miss. He was No. 3 on that list, though he's now suspended in Cuba for attempting to defect. I like Fernandez, who's major league ready with high OBP potential, but Olivera in his prime showed better tools, more athleticism, more size, more power and speed. Back when Olivera was 26, he was a better player at that time than Fernandez is now.
Every player on our Cuban rankings also gets a grade on the certainty scale from 1 (Very Low) to 5 (Very High). That's essential for Cuban players, not only because I believe in transparency, but because the scouting process for Cubans is so different than it is for players in the draft or in other countries. Olivera scored a 2 (Low) in his certainty score, so with that uncertainty combined with the upside he showed earlier in his career, Olivera ranked as the No. 6 player in Cuba in August.
Within a month, Olivera was out of Cuba. Since then, his stock has only increased, in large part because there's now a higher comfort level with his current talent level. He's strong—heavier and stronger than the last time scouts saw him—and he's shown well at all of his open showcases and several private workouts. Teams won't have all the answers they want about Olivera because even he doesn't know for certain how he will respond to having to play the field every day over a 162-game season. But the bat speed is still there, the swing is intact and he's shown he still has a polished hitting approach with the ability to drive all types of pitches. There's still risk, but he's done just about all he can to show teams that the talent that excited scouts years ago is still there.
Now that the 29-year-old Olivera is a free agent, the question is where he will end up. The Yankees have held a private workout for Olivera, but they also just signed Chase Headley to play third base and landed Stephen Drew on a one-year, $5 million deal to play second base. Drew could become a utility option if the Yankees were enamored with Olivera, but after the Yankees weren't willing to beat the Red Sox to sign Yoan Moncada, it would be surprising to see ownership push for Olivera.
Early on, the Giants looked like they were in on Olivera, and few teams have done their homework on him as well as San Francisco. With Pablo Sandoval leaving for Boston, the Giants lost a key hitter in the middle of their lineup. While the Giants added Casey McGehee as a stopgap on a one-year, $4.8 million contract, Olivera would be an upgrade for the Giants if they wanted to put him at third base. Despite the fit, the most recent talk in the international scouting world is that the Giants may be backing off Olivera.
Mariners president Kevin Mather and general manager Jack Zduriencik went down to the Dominican Republic and got a first-hand look in a private showcase, but they already have Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager at second and third base. The Mariners are not an ideal fit for Olivera, but if the president and GM are flying in to see him in a private workout, I wouldn't rule it out, especially with Seattle on the cusp of breaking through as a playoff team.
Back in December, the Athletics looked like the favorites for Olivera. If anything, the uncertainty around him could have worked in Oakland's favor by dropping his price. But the A's then traded for Ben Zobrist, and while Olivera would still fit well in Oakland, he's done well enough at his recent open showcases and private workouts that they might be priced out if the money escalates.
The same could be true for the Marlins, who have a couple of selling points with Miami being a prime destination for Cuban players and having no state income tax. With the Marlins just making a pair of trades in December to add second baseman Dee Gordon and third baseman Martin Prado, there isn't an obvious fit for Olivera, although Prado has the versatility to slot into several positions if the Marlins wanted to move him around.
While one of those teams could jump into the mix, most of the buzz and the evidence from the international scouting world has centered around these teams.
San Diego Padres
When Olivera was in his prime on the Cuban national team, general manager A.J. Preller was the international scouting director for the Rangers. Now the Padres are putting the full-court press on Olivera. Sources have seen Padres officials popping up frequently where Olivera trains in Santo Domingo. When Olivera held his first open showcase at the Giants' Dominican academy in January, Preller was the only GM in attendance. Not only that, but when I was in the Dominican Republic, Olivera told me that, after that showcase at the Giants' complex, Preller and other Padres officials went to his house afterwards to spend time with him. Olivera was impressed with Preller's ability to communicate with him in fluent Spanish.
With the offseason acquisitions of Wil Myers, Justin Upton and Matt Kemp, the Padres' outfield situation is squared away, with even a surplus to figure out now. The infield is where they need work. At third base the Padres have Yangervis Solarte and offseason acquisition Will Middlebrooks. At second base the Padres have Jedd Gyorko, who hit well in 2013 but is coming off a .210/.280/.333 season and battled through plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Gyorko did sign a six-year, $35 million extension with the Padres last year in April that will keep him under contract through 2019 with a $13 million club option for 2020, but that extension was signed under the previous regime, and Preller has shown little attachment to the players he inherited.
Whether the Padres would want him for second or third base, Olivera would be an upgrade at either position. Olivera has the size and tools that the Padres have targeted this offseason, the type of player that Preller went after in his most recent amateur acquisitions for Texas and that special advisor Logan White had success acquiring when he ran the Dodgers' scouting department. While Olivera's blood disorder is a red flag, if there's any team that's done a thorough job on its homework there, it's the Padres.
The Braves were one of the teams with a notable presence at Olivera's first open showcase last month, then soon afterwards showed with their interest when they flew down several key decision-makers to evaluate him in a private workout. Manager Fredi Gonzalez, assistant GM John Coppolella and special assistants Roy Clark and Gordon Blakeley were all there. Then they held a second private workout for Olivera. Blakeley has seen Olivera multiple times, and as an experienced evaluator on the international side with the Yankees, he's been around long enough to have seen Olivera during his prime on the Cuban national team.
The general direction of the organization has been to get younger, but that didn't stop the Braves from signing 31-year-old Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal. Their second base options for 2015 are all borderline replacement-level players, though top prospect Jose Peraza could be ready to take over that spot in 2016. Third baseman Chris Johnson hit well from 2012-13 but struggled badly last year and is entering his age-30 season. He's owed $23.5 million over the next three years, but he isn't locked into the Braves' future plans if he struggles again in 2015. With second base open, the Braves have an immediate place they could put Olivera, then reassess their options at third a year from now depending on how Peraza and Johnson fare in 2015.
Money is king, but if the dollars are close, it doesn't hurt that Atlanta's manager and bench coach Carlos Tosca are both fluent Spanish speakers who were born in Cuba, which could help ease Olivera's transition to the major leagues. Or that the signing scout for Gonzalez when he entered pro ball as a 16th-round pick of the Yankees was Rudy Santin, the trainer who now works with Olivera. Or that the Braves have already signed another of Santin's Cuban players already this offseason, outfielder Dian Toscano.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Olivera doesn't jump out as an obvious fit for the Dodgers. The Dodgers have Howie Kendrick at second base and Juan Uribe at third base. Olivera is athletic enough that he could probably handle a corner outfield spot without much issue, but the Dodgers are booked solid there as well.
Yet it's impossible to ignore that the two highest-ranking officials from any team at Olivera's final open showcase game last week were president Andrew Friedman and vice president Josh Byrnes. Remember, before the White Sox signed Jose Abreu, White Sox president Ken Williams was the only team president at his open showcase. Olivera performed well in front of Friedman and did even better at his previous showcase game, where he hit two home runs with Byrnes and other top Dodgers evaluators in attendance.
So what's going on here?
The Dodgers' new front office just traded for Kendrick, who becomes a free agent after he makes $9.5 million this season. They inherited Uribe, who's under contract for one more year at $6.5 million. Uribe has had a remarkable career, with the two best seasons of his career coming the last two years at age 34 and 35, performing as a 4-win player the last two years per Baseball-Reference.com after hitting .199/.262/.289 in the two previous seasons.
Uribe is about to turn 36, which means the wheels could come off quickly. There are legitimate questions about Olivera's ability to play the field consistently over a full 162-game season, but Uribe had multiple stints on the disabled list last season due to hamstring issues, which limited him to 103 games.
After 2015, the Dodgers are going to need a third baseman, although their top prospect, Double-A shortstop Corey Seager, could slide into that spot. They could possibly need a second baseman if Kendrick doesn't return. Clearly the Dodgers' front office like Kendrick, since they were the ones that traded for him. The Dodgers might be less attached to Uribe, who would have surplus value on the trade market, and they could plant Olivera at third base in 2015, possibly moving him to second after that.
Olivera's last showcase telegraphed the Dodgers' intentions of where they want to play him. Olivera has primarily been a second baseman in Cuba, though he has some history at third base and has the skill set to play the hot corner. Several teams are considering Olivera at either second or third base, so when he's gone to private workouts or held open showcase games, he's rotated between both positions. Yet when Friedman and Byrnes were in town, Olivera only played third base. If Olivera's camp wanted to showcase the breadth of his defensive skills for every team in attendance, they would have played him at second and third base. With the Dodgers' top decision-makers in town, though, it seemed clear they were the reason Olivera stayed at third.
If the Dodgers' front office and medical people are on the same page, it would be tough for anyone to beat them on Olivera.