The situation for Cuban free agent infielder Hector Olivera is still a bit muddled, even though he’s now a free agent that may sign any day now. Here’s a more complete background with a full scouting report, recap of his workout that I scouted last month and a breakdown of which teams fits him best. Here’s the video from that workout:
Yahoo is reporting Olivera has UCL damage that may require Tommy John surgery, which Olivera’s camp is denying. While whether Olivera has UCL damage is a black-and-white issue, there are still plenty of gray areas left for teams to wade through, including the UCL question itself.
First, some background: Olivera hasn’t played in a competitive game in awhile, hasn’t played in the field on even a part-time basis in years, and hasn’t played an international game (the only games that MLB teams can scout Cubans in person) in years. He has a blood disorder that knocked him out of game action for over a year, turns 30 next month and was noticeably fatigued in some private workouts for clubs, which were all scheduled with plenty of downtime between so he could recover.
In the game/workout I saw him play in, he had four plate appearances in six innings, then left the game right before he would’ve faced RHP Yadier Alvarez, who was sitting 93-97 mph. The pitchers Olivera has been facing in these workouts generally work around 88-91 mph and are of roughly A-Ball quality. Olivera’s careful handling has been a good move by his representation because it controls how scouts see him and limits risk, but it’s raised more than a few eyebrows and is doing nothing to allay fears about various medical and durability issues.
Olivera has had physicals with four teams, who brought their doctors to the Dominican, where Olivera is training, to watch him take a physical. More than four teams want physicals with Olivera, but some teams only want a physical in America with their doctors/facilities/equipment, where they can control the process rather than Olivera’s doctors.
Sources have indicated it’s unlikely that Olivera would be allowed to enter the U.S. before he has agreed to terms with a team. This means the situation I outlined in my recap of Olivera’s workout is still in play: a team agrees to terms with Olivera, flies him to the U.S. for a physical, then, depending on the results of the physical, could reduce the terms of the deal, which would also allow Olivera to back out of the deal if he chooses.
While the report of UCL damage is disputed by his agents, it doesn’t matter because any team that signs him, even if they’ve already had a physical, will have another one before anything is official. The issue is that there is a new and specific medical issue has been raised and one that can’t be disproven even if Olivera shows his arm is healthy and that his UCL has no damage.
There’s recent precedent with the #1 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, LHP Brady Aiken, that a fully healthy elbow can be deemed a risk in a physical, given the subjective way that teams project future health. What this Yahoo report does is give teams even more license to project a possible future health problem, and use that to squeeze the contract total lower, with a player who already has legitimate medical concerns that may be hard to quantify perfectly in a physical.
As I mentioned in my earlier Olivera article, a real concern is about Olivera’s durability to play on an everyday basis and play the field. The only data we have in the last few years on this topic is his recent workouts. While you can say these aren’t professional game situations and he might not fully up to game speed, teams are openly asking questions about what they’ve seen from a durability standpoint.
A fatigue/durability problem won’t come up in a physical, it would just show up on the field in 2015, and that would impact his future more than any of the more concrete issues, as he may just be a part-time player if it becomes a problem. That means this concern gets baked into the terms of an initial deal, with the results of a physical possibly pushing down the terms of the deal that he actually signs.
The Dodgers are the only team that’s in on Olivera that can afford to pay whatever they want. The Padres “have almost no money left” according to one executive and, while they have a much bigger need for Olivera than the Dodgers, they don’t stand a chance financially if the Dodgers are all-in. That said, the Dodgers just passed on the top teenage prospect on the planet (new Red Sox IF Yoan Moncada) because they’d rather get a number of players in the next July 2nd period (even though they have no early deals done yet) than take on the two-year penalty for just one player. The Dodgers new regime has shown the restraint that the old one didn’t and appears to be playing the long game of getting value and getting pieces that fit their plan while staying flexible and collecting young assets.
A group of other teams are lurking if the price comes down from where many think it will end up, with the Braves the most likely of that group to swoop in, after good meetings between manager Fredi Gonzalez (who is Cuban) with other top Braves officials with Olivera. Other teams in the periphery include the Giants, A’s, Marlins and Yankees, who don’t seem motivated to use their financial muscle on Olivera.
Before I get into the projected contract, there are a few things to note about Olivera’s representation. Rudy Santin is running the negotiation for Olivera. The last notable player he represented was Cuban defector IF Alex Guerrero, who signed with the Dodgers for four years and $28 million before the 2014 season. He only got a handful of big league at bats in his age 27 season in 2014 and while he hit well in Triple-A, scouts don’t think he’s a big leaguer of any impact. Guerrero is already a bust, signed by the previous Dodger regime, but the new group can’t be eager to dip into the same well. The Braves recently signed CF Dian Toscano from Santin, a 25-year-old Cuban who got $6 million over four years, so there is some comfort between both sides.
The thing I really wanted to note about Santin is how he’s been using the media in the past few weeks. He is telling teams he’s expecting over $70 million which through a game of telephone led to a report that there’s five teams offering at least $70 million, estimates of $45-50 million and $65-70 million, another report that there’s one offer of at least $50 million and it seems like there’s been a report every few days where Olivera’s camp is touting an offer, sharing expectations or trumpeting an asking price.
Why do I bring this up? Go read through MLB Trade Rumors and find another Major League free agent whose buzz is coming directly or indirectly from the agent with swings this wild in the projections this close to when he signs. If you’re getting paid, you don’t have to tell everyone about it. If you wanted to drum up positive buzz on your player, you’d hope that teams not in the running for your player will repeat your message, in hopes that their rivals will end up overspending.
When the data that leads to accurate contract projections (a long MLB history, detailed MLB stats, close comparables) isn’t there, then rumor is all anyone has to go off of. If James Shields‘ agent told teams he had multiple offers over $125 million just before he took the Padres offer, the media would report that but present it with extreme skepticism, probably with quotes from execs saying that claim is impossible. When the national media isn’t savvy about the Cuban market, doesn’t have a deep list of international sources and is racing for the next scoop, of course they’ll just repeat what the agent says, often without any comment next to it. I talked to a few execs who have negotiated with Santin and they said these sorts of games are par for the course in dealing with him, so why wouldn’t he ramp it up when the stakes are highest?
I still haven’t found one executive who thinks Olivera will get or is worth $70 million, but yesterday one told me he’d heard Olivera’s camp was “disappointed with the early bidding” and that he believed these reports were a ploy to try to get the Dodgers to up their bid. If this media offensive wasn’t drawing an offer to his liking, what’s the next game the agent might try? Putting a clock on decisions by telling execs he’s signing this weekend? I’m not saying all of this is fabricated or even that he won’t sign this weekend, but when you look at the factors here, it seems more likely the Olivera camp is trying to drum up interest than just transparently telling teams and the media what to expect tomorrow’s headlines to be.
The price I projected in my last Olivera article was when we had no idea what his physical would turn up. We still don’t know, since the UCL is still an unconfirmed report and teams aren’t saying what their Dominican physical revealed. That said, it appears teams are still interested, so it couldn’t have been that bad. The Dodgers and all of baseball know Olivera is theirs if they want him, but the question is at what price; that is decided by what the second-highest bid will be.
It appears San Diego is positioned to make the second-highest bid, but multiple sources indicated that roughly 4 years and $30 million is all they think San Diego can afford and they may not even be able to offer that much. If the top bid is about $30 million, the the Dodgers don’t have to clear that by much to get the player.
With rosters set and payrolls spent, the teams with a need, ownership flexibility on finances and/or money to spend is short. The Dodgers don’t even have a need, but could see an upgrade over Juan Uribe at third base in 2015 that can slide to second base when Howie Kendrick leaves and if/when Corey Seager takes the third base job. If the Dodgers like the talent and are okay with the risks, this makes sense as a nice gamble for them, but, as mentioned above, they aren’t bludgeoning people with a giant sack of money by paying any price to get any player they like.
Three or four years at $10-12 million per year with some of that money in incentives and maybe with an option is just a bit north of what I predicted last month, but I’m having trouble seeing any team that can top that offer if it comes from Los Angeles. If this ends up going well over $50 million, the sources I’ve talked to would be very surprised and so would I.
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.