The International Beat: Uncertainty Clouds Hector Olivera (and More)

Not surprisingly, when 29-year-old Cuban second basemen Hector Olivera held a showcase last week in the Dominican Republic, only one general manager joined the hundreds of scouts and other front office personnel in attendance. That GM — naturally — just so happened to be the Padres AJ Preller.

Preller is like the cop who gets the promotion to the cushy office job after 20 years on the beat, yet can’t resist the temptation to return to the streets. You’ve seen the movie before. And Preller apparently wasn’t there just because somewhere buried in his contract it says that he has to scout every player. According to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, the Padres are the favorites to sign Olivera once he becomes available (more on that later), flanked by the Giants, A’s, and Braves as other leading potential landing spots.

Back in August, Badler and Baseball America ranked Olivera as the sixth-best player left in Cuba, a nation that seems to grow baseball stars at the same rate it loses them. The infielder was a perennial star in Cuba toward the end of the previous decade, impressing scouts on the international stage (like the 2009 World Baseball Classic) and tearing up Cuba’s Serie Nacional with loud contact and a solid approach. In the 2011-2012 Cuban season, his best offensive output, Olivera hit .341/.468/.626 with 17 home runs and a two-to-one walk-to-strikeout ratio in 258 plate appearances. He wasn’t a one hit wonder either, as Olivera posted a .900-plus OPS in each of the four seasons that preceded his 2011-’12 campaign.

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Olivera, however, because after that offensive tour de force he missed the following season with injuries. Badler:

It’s difficult to get reliable medical information on players in Cuba, but according to Cuban media reports, Olivera missed the 2012-13 season (and didn’t play in any international tournaments, including the 2013 WBC) due to thrombosis in his left biceps, a serious issue that can block blood flow.

Olivera returned last season, but the numbers weren’t quite as impressive (.316/.412/.474) and he was primarily a designated hitter. Baseball America’s earlier-linked report on the best players in Cuba rated each player on a five-point scale of certainty, based on how frequently Baseball America and/or scouts were able to get eyes on them. Players like Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne received fives while Olivera got a two, mostly because of the missed 2012-’13 campaign and his absence on recent international squads.

If signed, where would Olivera fit on the Padres? Shortstop, maybe? Keep dreaming. Olivera profiles more as a second basemen, but there’s a chance he could move to third. Of course, the Padres already have Jedd Gyorko pegged at second, but there’s a bigger hole at third base, which is currently expected to be manned by some combination of Yangervis Solarte, Will Middlebrooks, and Cory Spangenberg. Olivera could either slide in at third or, if he’s limited to second base work, push Gyorko back to the hot corner, a position where he played over 200 games in the minor leagues. Olivera’s big — 6-2, 220 — so there’s also a chance the Padres see him as a future first basemen if a healthy Yonder Alonso isn’t the answer there. As Dennis Lin notes, Preller has “displayed a tendency to acquire talent rather than accommodate positional needs,” so he might be more focused on getting Olivera under contract than worried about where he’ll eventually play.

How much will he sign for? Yasmany Tomas recently received a six-year, $68.5 million deal (with an opt-out after the fourth year) with the D’Backs, and Badler wrote that he would have ranked Olivera ahead of Tomas had the outfielder been eligible for BA’s “Top Players Still in Cuba” list. Tomas is just 24 and comes with somewhat less uncertainty, but Olivera likely won’t come cheap. Since he’s spent more than five years in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, Olivera isn’t subject to the international amateur bonus pools, essentially making him an unrestricted free agent. He’s definitely an intriguing option for the new-look Padres.

Here’s a video of Olivera at his recent showcase in the Dominican Republic.

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I’ve discussed Yoan Moncada at length around these parts, noting back in November that the Padres could be dark horse suitors for the 19-year-old Cuban star. Then in December I wrote about baseball’s international amateur spending system in general at Baseball Prospectus, focusing on the Yankees spending spree, the impending Moncada sweepstakes, and the system’s overall shortcomings. Since then, there hasn’t been much news on Moncada, since he still hasn’t been cleared to sign in Major League Baseball.

At least there wasn’t much news until yesterday, when Ben Badler wrote about the holdout in Moncada receiving clearance to sign in MLB. Previously it was believed that OFAC — the Office of Foreign Assets Control — was to blame for the delay, not surprisingly slowing the process with its government-mandated mile-long roll of red tape. Badler:

Moncada, though, has already met the government’s requirements to be able to begin his career. Moncada has permanent residence in Guatemala. Any Cuban national who presents documents showing permanent residence in a country outside of Cuba qualifies for OFAC’s “general license,” which is not a written document. As far as OFAC is concerned, that should make him unblocked, and that’s good enough for the government to allow him to sign.

The problem is that, according to Badler, MLB recently changed its policy involving Cuban players signing in the states, no longer allowing them to use the general license to start their major league careers. Instead, Moncada was forced to file paperwork with OFAC and wait for their response, which can take up to six months.

Then last night, more news broke regarding Moncada, with Jeff Passan reporting that his free agency was imminent:

Star Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada no longer needs a specific unblocking license to play baseball in the United States, paving the way for Major League Baseball teams to pursue him with a contract most expect to shatter bonus records, government and major league sources told Yahoo Sports.

It’s an extremely complicated situation and I recommend that you check out both articles if you have interest in the details. If Passan’s sources are correct, Moncada, along with other Cuban stars like Olivera, could become eligible to sign within the next few weeks.

Do the Padres have any chance to sign Moncada once he becomes available? Not much has changed since November on that front. If the Padres want Moncada, they’ll likely have to outbid big-market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Angels (just to name a few), all reported to have varying degrees of interest. Since Moncada is subject to each team’s international amateur bonus pool, whichever team signs him will be subject to a near-100 percent tax on his signing bonus, not to mention a two-year ban on signing any international amateurs for more than $300,000. That means if Moncada reels in a $40 million bonus, the winning bidder will be sending another ~$40 million to MLB as part of the transaction. And that doesn’t count Moncada’s major league salary, once he reaches the bigs.

As I mentioned in November, the Padres might stand an outside shot  of landing Moncada since Preller’s track-record with the Rangers includes plenty of international spending, including a 2013 spending spree that made Texas one of the first teams to obliterate MLB’s new international amateur spending rules. But the overall financial outlay — the Padres still haven’t increased payroll from last season, despite all the moves — will likely keep San Diego on the periphery of the running, especially with the Yankees and Red Sox (and Angels) having already exceeded their allotted bonus pools this signing period.

Either way, with Preller in charge, you can expect a significant degree of interest anytime a highly-touted (or unheard of) international player becomes available. While Moncada might be out of the Padres price range, Olivera likely isn’t. He’d make an interesting addition to the 2015 roster, even with questions surrounding his current talent level present and Gyorko penciled in at his natural position.

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