There’s been a lot written about 29-year-old Cuban infielder Hector Olivera around the internet over the past few months. Heck, there’s been a lot written about Olivera right here at Padres Public, including this article by yours truly and another (more recent) one by Nate.
Despite all of the bandwidth dedicated to the Olivera beat, not much has really changed. He still possesses an interesting track record that contains both stellar Cuban professional league and international play as well as high praise from scouts. His track record also contains a sort of mysterious blood disorder, a missed season, and a most recent season in Cuba in which the second baseman spent most of his time at designated hitter.
Olivera has had mixed performances at recent showcases in preparation for a major league deal, displaying the sort of offensives skills scouts used to drool over while also showing more fatigue than you’d like to see out of a player with past health concerns. Then, things got even more weird — Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported that Olivera may have UCL damage in his right elbow. That report, naturally, was vehemently denied by Olivera’s camp. Then, Olivera’s camp changed, as he replaced his trainer-agent Rudy Santin with Greg Genske of the Legacy Agency, a move that apparently triggered interest in Olivera from a number of additional MLB clubs.
Despite a recently rumored price tag as high as $70-plus million, with the Dodgers as main players, the Padres have remained one of Olivera’s most likely landing spots through months of speculation. So, with the offseason picture essentially complete, does adding Olivera still make sense? Here are some things to consider.
The Cuban Success Tax
The string of successes from recent Cuban imports like Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, and Yasiel Puig has seriously inflated the Cuban market. No longer can MLB teams find top Cubans, whether they’re established and in their mid-twenties (like Abreu) or young, talented, and largely unproven (like Jorge Soler/Yoan Moncada), and sign them to reasonable, team-friendly contracts — at least not until more high-profile Cubans fail to make a smooth transition to the majors, ultimately correcting the Cuban market.
In short, from a player’s perspective, there’s no better time to be a Cuban free agent. On the other hand, from a team’s perspective, there probably isn’t a worse time to enter the international scene. The Padres, a team that’s missed out on all of the recent Cuban bargains, have to decide if now is the right time to make a major investment into a high-risk player.
Where does he play?
The Padres biggest current hole is probably shortstop, where some combination of Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes are expected to handle the majority of the work. Unfortunately, Hector Olivera is not a shortstop. He’s expected to play either second or third base, with first base as a fallback option if the bat is good enough or the range/arm force him there. Does Olivera improve the Padres enough at either of those positions to warrant a $50-plus million investment?
I have no idea.
Likely starting third baseman Will Middlebrooks has had a nice spring, posting a 1.000-plus OPS in just 28 plate appearances, displaying some of the raw power that made him a hot commodity a few years back in Boston. Then again, he also had really good spring training numbers in 2013 and 2014, and regular season success didn’t follow. Yangervis Solarte, Middlebrooks’ main competition at third, might be a solid option as a change of pace to a right-handed/power-heavy lineup, but he also might be stretched in an everyday role. Jedd Gyorko, the incumbent second basemen, is coming off a disappointing sophomore campaign that was filled with injuries and poor performance, but he’s owed $35 million over the next five years and is a decent bet to bounce back.
There’s room for Olivera, but he’s not necessarily a no-brainer upgrade at either second or third.
The Playoff Sweet Spot
The most obvious reason to sign Olivera might be the Padres position on the playoff ladder. Right now, PECOTA has the Padres as an 84-win team, tied with the Giants for the sixth and final NL playoff spot. Fangraphs pegs the Padres similarly — at 83 wins — and also has them on the fringe of the playoffs in the muddled NL.
At this point, adding one or two wins to the Padres projected total is more valuable than adding one or two wins to a 75-win team or a 95-win team. In theory, at least, adding Olivera could be the move that pushes the Padres into the playoffs, increasing their current and future revenue and, more importantly, increasing their chance to win a World Series. For a team in the Padres position on the win curve, adding a potentially valuable player this late in the offseason could pay major dividends come October.
The Padres could use someone like Olivera, provided he’s the guy with a solid all-fields stroke and good on-base skills. Of course, there’s a decent chance he is no longer that player, or that his near 30-year-old skills won’t translate to the majors like they might have five years ago, or that his health concerns end up derailing a would-be solid MLB career. The Padres have to decide if the risk is worth the reward.