As you all no doubt know by now, the Braves just made a blockbuster trade: Alex Wood, Jose Peraza, Jim Johnson, Luis Avilan, and most of Bronson Arroyo’s dead-money contract for Hector Olivera, Paco Rodriguez, Zach Bird, and a late-first round pick in the 2016 amateur draft.
The key to all of this is Olivera, who just might be an impact player at third base. If he is, then he’s cheap at the price, and the Braves won’t regret trading one of their best pitchers and one of their best prospects for a 30-year old Cuban player who hasn’t played a day in the majors and who has been dogged by injury concerns for the past three years. However, as Martin Gandy says, this is clearly “the riskiest trade the Braves have made yet.”
Who is Olivera? He was born in April, 1985, and he was almost exclusively a second baseman in Cuba, though Baseball America notes that third base is “a position he has some history with when he was starting his career.”
Olivera’s calling card is his broad base of skills: he’s basically average to above-average in every tool. If you don’t know the 20-to-80 scouting scale, it’s basically a normal distribution where 50 is average and 80 is Giancarlo Stanton’s power or Billy Hamilton’s speed or Aroldis Chapman’s fastball. Here are the grades that Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel gave him back in February:
Hit: 45/55, Game Power: 45/50+, Raw Power: 55/55, Speed: 55/55, Field: 50/50, Throw: 55/55, FV: 50
FV means Future Value. The numbers on the left side of the slash are his ratings today; the numbers on the right side of the slash are him at his peak. Essentially, he has no weaknesses.
Except for his health. Back in March, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan and MLB’s Jesse Sanchez reported that he might have a UCL tear. As a result, the Dodgers inserted a clause into his contract that would give them an additional year of his services for just $1 million if he should require Tommy John surgery.
But the bigger issue is that he has barely played the field in the last four years. He missed the 2012-2013 season after being diagnosed with a blood clot in his left arm; he took blood thinners to address the issue, and his doctors wouldn’t let him play baseball. When he returned to play in 2013, he mostly played DH, and he didn’t play on the Cuban national team that year. So the last time he played a full season as a position player was 2011. That may partly explain why he was DL’ed with a hamstring injury in late June. When he was trying out for teams during the offseason, McDaniel writes, many scouts noticed that he was “noticeably fatigued in some private workouts for clubs, which were all scheduled with plenty of downtime between so he could recover.”
That said, all of these health issues are extremely well known, and he has been examined extremely closely. It is fair to say that his health concerns have been baked into his price. The Braves are getting Olivera for 5 years and $32.5 million, which becomes 6 years and $33.5 million if Olivera needs ligament replacement surgery at any time between now and 2020. That price is about a 45% discount from that of two other Cuban players who were free agents this offseason, Yasmany Tomas (who signed with Arizona for 6 years, $68.5 million) and Rusney Castillo (who signed with Boston for 7 years/$72.5 million). Moreover, as BA’s Badler writes: “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, Iâm not alone in that opinion, either.”
So, this is a leap of faith, and it’s much more of a leap for us fans than it is for the Braves front office. Olivera did a private workout for the Braves in late January, and they were known to be one of the chief teams pursuing him in the offseason, before the Dodgers swooped in and offered him a $28 million signing bonus. Braves scouts clearly love his skills and Braves doctors have clearly reviewed his medical reports, and they believe that he is an acceptable risk, one worth trading one of the team’s top pitchers and one of the team’s top prospects.
I’m not quite sure what a good comparison would be, but it seems to me that the team is hoping that Olivera will be something like Travis Fryman: a pretty good hitter who’s also a pretty good fielder, one of those guys who flies under the radar as one of the better players in the league precisely because he’s good at everything and bad at nothing. (Unfortunately, Fryman also had trouble staying on the field and was done by age 33, so we’ll have to hope that Olivera has better staying power.)
Incidentally, with this trade, Olivera now blocks Rio Ruiz in the same way that Jace Peterson blocked Jose Peraza. Right now, Ruiz’s stock is way down, so he’s no kind of trade chip. But if he is able to solve Double-A next year, he may be just as expendable as Peraza was today.
However, Peraza aside, this trade helps to demonstrate why the Braves believe that pitching is the key currency in baseball: they traded four pitchers and a position player for two pitchers, a position player, and a draft pick, and there’s a decent chance that they’ll use that draft pick to take another pitcher next year. This is why they keep drafting pitchers and trading for pitchers. They believe that they can develop pitchers and trade for position players. I expect that we will see more trades like this in the near future.
It also demonstrates a key truth in baseball: you can never get too attached. Here’s hoping the guys in charge know what they’re doing.