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Hector Olivera: The latest Cuban hope?

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Hector Olivera is the latest international signee to try and make it in the big leagues. He should be making his debut for the Braves later this month.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The world is a far different place than it was even a year ago. With US-Cuban relations thawing, as a sport baseball will (hopefully) have regular access to a very vibrant and talented pool of players in Cuba. Now, thats not to say that Cuban players haven't already made their marks on baseball history, to name a few....

  • Rafael Palmeiro - 71.6 career WAR
  • Luis Tiant - 66.1 career WAR
  • Tony Perez - 53.9 career WAR
  • Bert Campaneris - 53.0 career WAR
  • Dolf Luque - 43.2 career WAR
  • Tony Oliva - 43.0 career WAR

Unfortunately, for a long time these players were the exceptions...those who had defied the odds. Defection from Cuba is/was a very dangerous endeavour. The stories of what happened to Yasiel Puig as well as Leonys Martin are just two of many stories of what baseball players had to do and whom they had to ally with/hire just to get the chance to play in Major League Baseball. Rafael Palmeiro's family defected to Miami when he was just a small child and Luis Tiant's arrival in the majors coincided with the Bay of Pigs which meant he could play in the majors, but not return home. He would not see his parents for 14 years as a result.

Sports Illustrated put an article out late last year creating an All-Cuba team which reads not only as a team no one would want any part of (finally getting Luis Tiant out of the game only to have to face Aroldis Chapman? No thanks). However, things are changing slowly and with the establishment of formal diplomacy and MLB adapting to the changing landscape of international baseball (and the possible imposition of an international draft), more Cuban players are beginning to find themselves on the radar for Major League clubs, especially given how well-established the Cuban pro leagues are.

List of Current Players from Cuba

Yonder Alonso Yunel Escobar Raisel Iglesias Henry Urrutia
Jose Abreu Jose Fernandez Leonys Martin Dayan Viciedo
Erisbel Arruebarrena Onelki Garcia Adrian Nieto Rusney Castillo
Yoenis Cespedes Yasmani Grandal Brayan Pena Kendrys Morales
Aroldis Chapman Alexander Guerrero Yasiel Puig Yasmany Tomas
Odrisamer Despaigne Adeiny Hechavarria Alexei Ramirez Adonis Garcia
Roenis Elias Jose Iglesias Jorge Soler Dalier Hinojosa

Now, not all of these guys are current or even future All-Stars, but the depth of talent just of those who have able to defect thus far is staggering. Rusney Castillo and Yasmany Tomas just signed long term deals with Tomas already contributing in the majors in a significant way (although the defensive metrics thus far have not been kind to him). Puig, Abreu, Morales, Guerrero, Escobar, Cespedes, Martin, and Iglesias are all significant players on offense for their respective teams, while Aroldis Chapman and Jose Fernandez are considered among the best pitchers in the game (bullpen and starter respectively of course). With that in mind, the Braves just got their hands on a player that they had coveted greatly this past offseason...

Hector Olivera: The Next Great Cuban Import?

To say that there has been a lot of hand wringing and angst amongst Braves fans over the trade with the Dodgers is an understatement to say the least. Make no mistake about it: the prize in that deal for the Braves was Hector Olivera. A veteran of the Cuban National Series, Olivera averaged .323 and totaled 96 home runs and 433 RBIs while playing there and also played extensively with the Cuban national team. Last fall he defected to Haiti and drew interest from a lot of MLB teams, especially the Braves. However, the Braves could never realistically compete with the billionaire funny money that the Dodgers have and Olivera signed with them for 6 years/$62.5 million with a $28 million signing bonus. He was regarded as one of the more well-rounded Cuban players, but carries with him significant injury/age risks, as he missed a season with thrombosis (essentially a blood clot) in his arm that is thought to be a genetic issue as well as a rumored issue with his elbow.

The Dodgers, like a kid with too many playthings, put Olivera in the minors until they could figure out where to play him where he was hitting quite well before a hamstring issue (which doesn't exactly help the concerns over his health) halted his march to the majors. The Dodgers ultimately packaged him in the giant trade with the Braves and Marlins which ultimately sent Alex Wood, Jim Johnson, and top(ish) prospect Jose Peraza to the Dodgers.

So where does this leave the Braves and Olivera? Well in the next week, we should see Olivera begin the latter stages of his rehab from his hamstring injury in the minors and barring a real setback, Braves fans will see him in the majors this year. The Braves have been stockpiling pitching in the minors, but are now very clearly in search of impact bats. Giving up Alex Wood and Jose Peraza (no matter how you view their careers in the majors or how you view the futures of Paco Rodriguez and Zach Bird) was a very high price to pay, but it highlights what direction the Braves' front office is now moving in. The Braves have arguably one the strongest stables of young pitching in the league (especially in terms of depth), and now they are moving towards acquiring bats that will help them when SunTrust Park opens. As John Hart himself told the AJC

"As we start to retool this offense, this is the first building block, I think," Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. "Look, we just don't have the upper-level bats that are in the (minor league) system. We're going to have to be creative in how we bring in some of these guys....

The Braves wanted to be a player on the international market for Olivera and instead got him for less money (at the cost of real player assets) and now are poised to make a run at multiple angles in the next 12 months. The Braves now have $50-60 million freed up on payroll starting this offseason and they have no penalties on them currently in terms of international signings because of their restraint in the previous couple of years. Now not only can they be big players on the free agent market that will feature Yoenis Cespedes, Zack Greinke, David Price, and others, but they are also the favorites to sign heralded Venezuelan prospect Kevin Maitan (who has drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera) and are looking at being big players for several high profile international free agents, in particular those from Cuba who, again, may be easier to obtain given the recent changes in US-Cuban relations and the fact that many of the big market teams will not be allowed to sign next year due to overspending their pools.

As for Olivera, we know that he should hit, but we don't know for how much power or for how long. He was considered one of the best players in Cuba during his time there and, as we have seen above, that bodes well given the level of talent that has been produced in recent history. He does have risk associated with him, no question...but is he really any less risky than a pitcher who has already had Tommy John surgery and has a delivery that would make Dr. Andrews squirm? Many of you would answer he is more risky than Wood (and you aren't necessarily wrong)...and its because Hector Olivera is an unknown. He's never played in the majors and comes from a league and a country that we are only beginning to understand again, and for every Puig and Canseco and Tiant and Perez, there are hundreds of others who have failed to reach the majors for reasons of political, physical, and economic natures.

Whats done is done now, and by all accounts Olivera is happy to be a Brave. The tax climate is a better in Georgia than in California and he has a strong relationship with fellow Cuban, manager Fredi Gonzalez. He is the latest Cuban hope, the latest player from a country that is soon to open up to the world again, the latest man to defect and risk everything to play in the majors. He may never have the career WAR totals of Tiant or Palmeiro (his age all but assures that), but just because he is an unknown does not make the trade a failure from the beginning. Its a big risk....really big, one the Braves' front office felt they had to make given the extent of the overhaul, and its one that hinges on hope.