I returned a few days ago from a three-day trip to the Dominican to see top July 2nd prospects (more on that in the coming weeks) and also a workout that had 18 Cuban players in it. Two of those 18 were big-time prospects, the well-known and hyped 29-year-old 2B Hector Olivera and the brand new name, 18-year-old righty Yadier Alvarez. Here’s my notes and video on those two, along with some quick updates on the other two notable Cubans on the market, 2B/3B/CF Yoan Moncada and 2B Andy Ibanez.
For reference, in my top 200 prospects list that is coming next week, these Cuban players aren’t included on the list, but Moncada would be 8th, Alvarez would be 57th and Ibanez would be in the 150-200 range, while Olivera is ineligible due to his age and experience.
Hector Olivera, 2B
The Many Concerns
I tweeted from Olivera’s final open workout for teams the most notable aspects: the huge scouting crowd (chock full of high level directors and VPs, along with Dodgers president Andrew Friedman), the very solid performance from Olivera (good BP, 3-for-3 with two doubles, a walk and a HBP while playing a solid third base) and the noisy emergence of RHP Yadier Alvarez (covered below). The above video is every swing Olivera took in the batting practice and the game before exiting around the 6th inning once Alvarez was done pitching, which was the cue for the high level scouts to leave the game.
Olivera is a tougher evaluation for scouts and also for the prognosticators like myself for a number of reasons. First, he’s 29 and turns 30 in a few months, so teams are signing up for his decline years. Being from Cuba means that no MLB team can independently confirm Olivera’s age, since MLB and the teams can’t go into the country to run their own investigations like they do in other Latin countries before committing big money to a player. Scouts whose teams aren’t even in on Olivera has expressed concern about his age, because just a couple years added to an already decline-phase player really affects his value, so Olivera has a huge incentive to mislead teams in this regard, with little risk of being caught.
Secondly, Olivera has a worrisome medical track record. The somewhat known aspect of this is the thrombosis in his left biceps, which is believed to be hereditary and knocked him out of the 2012-13 season in Cuba’s top pro league, then limited him to mostly playing as a DH in 2013-14, with no international appearances (read: scout-able games for MLB teams) in that span. I say the thrombosis is somewhat known because, like age verification info, teams don’t have access to Olivera’s medical information (this info comes via Cuban media reports and scout chatter) and won’t get it until a physical, which will only happen for the team that agrees to terms with him, keeping the other 29 clubs in the dark.
In addition to the age and medical questions, scouts have noticed Olivera getting fatigued earlier in workouts than an athlete of his size, strength and age should. Multiple teams that had private workouts with him mentioned this to me, along with a wider swath of scouts that were at his first open workout, which was spread over two days. While this could be a simple conditioning issue, Olivera will head to Spring Training in this condition and it brings up another wrench in the process, which is a potential fatigue issue that may not come up in a physical, adding more risk to the process.
If Olivera’s physical comes up negative, a team can adjust the contract down (there’s recent precedent with Cuban players), but a fatigue issue likely can’t be pinpointed until he plays a full season and plays in the field regularly, which he hasn’t done in years. Nearly every source I’ve talked to with clubs have termed the thrombosis as “very serious” and a few have framed it as “life threatening.” This could be an attempt to drive his price down by some of the scouts, but perception is reality when there’s limited information in an open bidding with relatively few teams involved.
If the physical is a negative, Olivera would then strike a reduced deal with the team that he reaches terms with and has the physical for because, if he walks away from the reduced contract offer, he’d be back on the market even closer to Opening Day with less money and fewer roster spots available and with a black mark on his medical file to discourage other teams from entering the fray for significant money. While its hard to handicap how this medical process will play out, I’d guess Olivera either signs a contract with options and incentives to cover the team’s medical risk, or there’s a pre-physical understanding about the type of reduction the team would ask for in the event of a negative physical.
One last concern about Olivera is the level of the pitching he’s facing in these workouts. In the three plate appearances I saw (the counts were reset after the HBP and walk, so he was only at the plate three times), Olivera faced pitchers throwing 88-90 mph with fringy off-speed stuff and okay command. Olivera was on deck when Alvarez faced his last batter (Alvarez was pitching in the mid-90’s with above average off-speed stuff) and the scouts all shouted for Alvarez to stay out there for another hitter so we could all see the high profile matchup. Alvarez paused and looked at the handlers running the workout, who indicated Alvarez’s outing was over and he wasn’t to face Olivera.
There was another pitcher that threw late in the game that ran his fastball up to 94 mph; Olivera didn’t face either of these more advanced arms and left the game when it was 2/3 over. Teams with private workouts can’t get high level pitchers to fly down to the Dominican to throw to a free agent, so they mostly use arms of similar quality to the ones Olivera faced in the open workout. This is shrewd on the part of his agent to limit his risk, but doesn’t go far in reducing fears about his client.
The Scouting Report
Hit: 45/55, Game Power: 45/50+, Raw Power: 55/55, Speed: 55/55, Field: 50/50, Throw: 55/55, FV: 50
There’s undeniable talent here: Olivera has above average bat speed, bat control, plate discipline and raw power, which is to all fields and he has a history of getting to in games. He’s an above average runner that can play second base or third base and has an above average arm. That’s an above average everyday player with the statistical track record to give you some confidence that he’ll perform in the big leagues, but there’s real risk of him staying on the field regularly and not having his tools regress in a few years.
What all of this the means is that the optimistic outcome is, in 2015 in the big leagues, that Olivera could hit .260-.280 with a good OBP, 15-20 homers and solid-average base running and defensive value. He may well be better in 2015 than Yasmany Tomas and Rusney Castillo, but given his age and track record, that isn’t going out on much of a limb; the concern is if he’s better than them in the following years and the risk associated with that. It’s possible Olivera will need a couple week in the minors to get up to speed, but he’s seen as a plug-and-play MLB option.
The Interested Teams
The five teams I’m told are most interested in Olivera are the Dodgers, Padres, Braves, Giants and Marlins. All had at least one high level scout at the workout I attended, but not all of them have clear spots for him to fit on their MLB roster. The Marlins just traded for new starters at Olivera’s two positions (Martin Prado and Dee Gordon), so it appears their interest is more jumping in at a reasonable price to add a Cuban player that will appeal to their fan base. The Giants haven’t spent much this offseason and have a better fit for Olivera, with Joe Panik and Casey McGehee at those two spots, while the Braves could use him even more, presumably with some money to spend after shedding payroll this offseason and with Alberto Callaspo, Kelly Johnson and Chris Johnson manning second base and third base but with solid prospects 2B Jose Peraza and 3B Rio Ruiz in the upper levels of the system. It’s hard to tell how much money the Padres have left after all their moves and they’re set at second base with Jedd Gyorko, but could use a third base upgrade over Yangervis Solarte and Will Middlebrooks.
Finally, the Dodgers have as much money as they feel like having, but have been restrained this off-season and avoided creating logjams on the roster. They have Howie Kendrick, Juan Uribe, super prospect Corey Seager and Justin Turner playing at Olivera’s positions, so there isn’t a real need in the short term, especially if they end up signing 2B/3B/CF Yoan Moncada as many are expecting. Kendrick has one year left on his deal and Moncada and Seager could be two potential superstar options at Olivera’s positions as soon as next year, not to mention the financial firepower the Dodgers have to add one-year stopgaps like Kendrick if needed. The Dodgers could just sign all of these Cubans, but given the MO thus far of the new management group, I’d expect them to pick Olivera or Moncada and, if they pick Moncada, to further justify the July 2 bonus penalty that would come with that signing by going after Ibanez and/or Alvarez to help soften the blow.
The field of interested teams would be higher if Olivera cleared to sign as the offseason was starting and, because of that, the teams that have a need for a regular contributor, have an MLB roster spot to spare and have the kind of money that will win the bidding is limited. This force will push the price down from a December market value, especially with the uncertainty of the age and medical issues. Because of the timing and risk, adding Olivera isn’t just a straight spending of existing payroll that was going to be spent on someone, but more a situation where an executive is sticking his neck out. This is why I think the deal will be at a price or structure that allows the team to minimize the damage if Olivera’s health concerns prove to be correct.
Olivera technically can’t sign yet because MLB hasn’t declared him a free agent, but he’s already met the new standards from OFAC to be unblocked and free agency should come any day now. Multiple sources indicate that Olivera’s camp is asking for the Tomas/Castillo contract in AAV terms, meaning at least $10 million per year. I could see a team doing that if their top evaluators are all-in on the talent, but I couldn’t see that for more than 2-3 guaranteed years with options and incentives, with a chance that number gets reduced before the contract is signed. My prediction is a 3-year deal with an option for a $25-30 million guarantee, with the above mentioned caveats of incentives and a potentially adjusted post-physical deal. I could see a team going to four years to land the player if two clubs get very aggressive on Olivera, but it’s hard to see a team giving more than four guaranteed years, given the information they’ll have access to before a decision is made.
Yadier Alvarez, RHP
Fastball: 60/65, Slider: 50/60, Changeup: 50/55, Command: 40/50, FV: 55
Alvarez is an 18-year-old Cuban pitcher that recently defected and above is video from this Wednesday, his second outing for scouts in the Dominican. Details are scarce, but Alvarez wasn’t a big name in Cuba and never played in their top pro league. I heard rumors after his first appearance for scouts two weeks ago that he hit 98 mph, but you take that type of buzz with a grain of salt in this market. He hit 98 mph again in the outing I went to on one scout’s gun, but hit 97 mph multiple times on every gun, sitting at 93-96 mph over his two innings. As you can see in the video (from his second inning when I moved down to get a closer look) the slider is plus and the changeup is surprisingly good, flashing 55, and Alvarez used it multiple times in two strike counts and against right-handed hitters. While the command isn’t all the way there yet, he’s only 18 with new velocity that he’s still adjusting to, while the delivery, arm, frame and athleticism are all solid to very good with some flashes of feel to pitch already.
He projects as a starter, but the question is that of consistency and stamina. We likely won’t learn much about the stamina as his workouts will go on for another month or two before signing and he’ll likely be limited to a couple innings at a time. He checks all the boxes for a pitcher of this age and you’d obviously like to see more than the four innings scouts have been limited to so far, but Alvarez will get plenty of money after just throwing a handful of innings, so it would be an unnecessary risk to expose himself to, and teams would rather handle his throwing program themselves than have an agent do it. It’s too early to really know what he’s capable of or if his body can hold up to this new velocity, but the raw talent here is comparable to LHP Brady Aiken and the other top 18-year-old arms in the world.
After talking to his camp, they expect Alvarez’s paperwork to be done in 4-8 weeks and for him to sign as a part of the current July 2 period. This means the Cubs and Rangers wouldn’t be able to sign him and the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Diamondbacks and Angels would all have a chance to sign him before their two-year penalty of no players over $300,000 kick in on July 2nd of this year. Due to the chance the Dodgers sign Moncada and join this group, they are potentially in the same situation and, as mentioned in the Olivera section above, it would make sense to sign multiple Cuban players subject to the bonus pools if they’re going to sign one.
Again, as I’ve already said, it’s super early to peg what Alvarez’s talent and his market are, but he’s clearly better than RHP Yoan Lopez, the 21-year-old Cuban who signed with the Diamondbacks earlier this year for an $8.25 million bonus. This means Alvarez should go for $10 million or more, with his further workouts dictating what the ceiling may be. It’s likely that the team that signs him is already over their pool for this year (one of the 5-6 teams mentioned above), but with further good outings, a team could decide that Alvarez is worth three years of July 2nd signees and enter the fray. This situation is further complicated by the fact that over a dozen top July 2nd prospects already have verbal deals with teams, so signing Moncada, Alvarez or Ibanez could mean reneging on a verbal deal, a sticky situation that I discussed here.
Yoan Moncada, 2B/3B/CF and Andy Ibanez, 2B
I’ve already written a good bit about these two and there isn’t a ton of new news, but it’s worth mentioning them while I’m writing about the other two notable Cubans on the market. Moncada’s timetable to sign is in the next couple of weeks and my wrap-up of his situation last week still applies: I think it’ll be a $40+ million bonus, with the Dodgers as the favorite, the Yankees as the second favorite, then a handful of teams lurking in the periphery that likely can’t match the prices those two teams are willing to pay. It’ll be interesting to see the media fallout after Moncada signs regarding the buzz from teams and MLB execs on an international draft, since Moncada will get about eight times what a comparable America kid would get. This may end up being true of Alvarez as well.
Ibanez has “gone dark” according to the scouts I talked to in the Dominican, with no open workouts or buzz of private workouts when I was in the on the island. He’s eligible to sign immediately like Moncada, so that suggests he has offers in hand or coming soon. His market isn’t as well known, but he’s a second baseman with fringy speed and below average game power, so the tools aren’t enormous, but the bat is advanced and he’s 21 years old. I don’t think a team that isn’t already over it’s pool will take on the penalties to sign Ibanez, so I’d expect one of the 5-6 teams mentioned above to be the landing spot, with a potential bonus in the $5-12 million range, possibly coming very soon.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.