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International Free Agent Profile: Héctor Olivera

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Héctor Olivera, one of Cuba's more well-rounded players, has recently defected from the island nation. When his services become available, would he be worth investing in?

Losing Olivera will be a blow to the Cuban national baseball team
Losing Olivera will be a blow to the Cuban national baseball team
Koji Watanabe

Born April 5, 1985, in the southern city of Santiago de Cuba, Héctor Olivera Amaro is the son of Héctor Olivera Sr. (Héctor Olivera González), a star third baseman in the 1970s and 1980s who hit a cumulative .316/.397/.464 over the course of his career. Following in his father's footsteps, the junior Héctor Olivera pursued baseball and earned a roster spot on Las Avispas (the Wasps), the team representing Santiago de Cuba in La Serie Nacional.

Héctor Olivera made his professional debut in the 43rd Serie Nacional (2003-2004) at age 18. He hit the ground running in his rookie campaign, hitting .319/.367/.445. In addition to providing his team a great deal of value with his bat, Olivera demonstrated a great deal of positional versatility, logging time at first base, second base, shortstop, third base, and left field over the course of the season. The following year, newly installed manager Antonio Pacheco decided to make Olivera the team's regular second baseman. The youngster logged an even more impressive sophomore season, hitting 326/.362/.454 and belting six home runs. Of his 108 hits over the course of the season, none were more important than his very last. Santiago de Cuba had made the finals and were up 3-2 on the now-defunct Los Vaqueros de La Habana in the best-of-seven series. In the ninth inning of game six, Olivera led off the inning with a single and scored the clinching run.

The second baseman had his first real down year during the 45th Serie Nacional (2005-2006), hitting .262/.351/.364 with five homers. Adding insult to injury, Santiago de Cuba made the finals, but lost to Los Industriales. In American baseball parlance, this would be akin to the New York Yankees beating the Boston Red Sox in the World Series (if that were possible). Las Avispas for get their revenge, though, as they won the championship the next year, beating those very same Industriales. Olivera had a better season as well, hitting .315/.372/.412 with eight home runs.

In the 47th Serie Nacional (2007-2008), the second-generation ballplayer had his first All-Star season—in part because of the introduction of a new ball that led to an offensive explosion throughout the league and in part because of his own blossoming baseball talents. In 96 games, Olivera hit .353/.467/.542, roughly 30 points higher than his career-best average, 100 points higher than his career-best on-base percentage, and 100 points higher than his career-best slugging percentage. His 11 home runs were a then-career best, and his 21 steals (in 29 attempts) remain a career high. As was the case during the 44th Serie Nacional (2004-2005), no hit was as important as his very last one. With Santiago de Cuba in the finals once again, Olivera reached on a fielder's choice in the bottom of the eighth, stole second, and came around to score the deciding run, giving the team its third championship in four years.

From that point on, the second baseman became one of the preeminent players in Cuba. From the 48th to the 51st Serie Nacional (2008-2009 to 2011-2012), the second baseman averaged a .331/.428/.579 slash line, hitting 18, 14, 16, and 17 home runs in each of those respective four seasons. His name regularly found itself high atop the leader boards, surrounded by such high-profile names as Alfredo Despaigne, Yulieski Gourriel, Frederich Cepeda, and Alexei Bell.

Olivera missed the entire 52nd Serie Nacional (2012-2013) season, as well as the 2013 World Baseball Classic, due to thrombosis in his left bicep, a condition in which a clot forms inside of a blood vessel and obstructs the flow of blood to the area. The middle infielder returned to the field the following year and did not miss a beat, despite not having played in over a year. Olivera logged another season hitting over .300, and though his home run total dropped to only seven, he still slugged a robust .474.

In addition to years of domestic competition, Olivera is no stranger to international competition, having been a member of the Cuban national baseball team for years. Over roughly the last decade, he has played in numerous high-profile international competitions including, but not limited to, the Baseball World Cup, the Intercontinental Cup, the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic, and the World Port Tournament.

Olivera participated in the 2009 WBC, the tournament in which Samurai Japan defeated the Cuban national team twice in the second round to eliminate them from the competition. Penciled in as the starting second baseman, Olivera played in four games. In his 16 at-bats, he hit .313/.389/.500, notching five hits and walking twice. On March 8 against South Africa, Olivera led off the game with a single off of Barry Armitage, walked in the third, and hit a solo home run in the fifth off of Donavon Hendricks. On March 10 against Australia, Olivera drew a walk in the seventh inning against Damian Moss. On March 16 against Mexico, he singled in the third and the fifth, both hits coming off of Jorge Campillo. On March 18 against Japan, he singled in the fifth off of Hisashi Iwakuma.

Year Age G AB AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2009-2010 (49th SNdB) 25 89 345 .322 .415 .565 14 56 29 0/1
2010-2011 (50th SNdB) 26 86 346 .318 .390 .535 16 37 21 2/0
2011-2012 (51st SNdB) 27 60 264 .341 .462 .626 17 44 22 0/1
2012-2013(52nd SNdB) 28 DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
2013-2014 (53rd SNdB) 29 73 228 .316 .412 .474 7 38 25 0/0

Héctor Olivera is a fairly well-rounded player and, as a result, Baseball America ranked him the sixth-best baseball player in Cuba back in late August. With his ability to hit for average, hit for power, and get on base at a high rate, the second baseman sat near the top of numerous offensive categories—for both his team and the league—during his career in Serie Nacional.

At the plate, the right-hander exhibits above-average plate recognition and zone awareness, no doubt due in part to working with his father, whose .459 batting average during the 1980 Series Selectivas (a now-defunct summer league that ran yearly from 1975 to 1995) remains a Cuban record. Olivera possesses decent pop for a middle infielder, but it is important to keep his home run numbers in context—stadiums in Cuba are generally smaller than MLB parks. Guillermo Moncada Stadium is the second-biggest in Cuba, and yet it is roughly 320 feet down the lines and 400 feet to straight-away center.

Defensively, scouts have generally been indifferent about Olivera's ability to play second base. In the time that scouts have had to form their opinions, Olivera has neither impressed nor humiliated himself. He is seen as athletic and able to handle the defensive rigors of second base, but unlikely to excel defensively. In addition to manning second base for Las Avispas, Olivera has logged varying amounts of time at both corner infield spots and shortstop, as well as spending time as DH.

The middle infielder only recently defected, so his impact in MLB is still a ways off. Generally speaking, the process can take anywhere from a few months to a year or so, depending on how quickly Olivera can establish permanent residency in a new country, how quickly the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control vets his paperwork for his unblocking license (and whether or not any irregularities turn up), how quickly MLB grants him free agent status, and how aggressive he markets himself and how MLB teams respond.

Does he make sense for the Mets?

Though he has gotten token time at other positions, Olivera is primarily a second baseman. With 2014 All-Star Daniel Murphy the incumbent second baseman, and prospects Wilmer Flores and/or Dilson Herrera ready to step up should Murphy be traded, the Mets have no real pressing need to address the position. Héctor Olivera is also no lock to be an upgrade over Murphy, Flores, or Herrera, making his possible acquisition even less likely.

Because Olivera is fairly athletic, he could, in theory, be shifted to an outfield position, but I do not see the wisdom of such a move. In addition to the difficulties of getting adjusted to a new league in a new country, Olivera would have to learn to play the outfield; outside of a handful of games in his rookie season, Olivera has no experience playing out there. In the past, Terry Collins has cited difficulties adapting to the outfield as a reason Lucas Duda's bat lagged in parts of 2012 and 2013. "When he was playing the outfield, he was so concerned about not making a mistake defensively, he got more caught up in that than producing runs," Collins said. "He always thought he had to drive in two if he was going to drive in any runs. I think right now, he knows he can play first base, he's a good first baseman, and I think it's helped him offensively." While there is no guarantee that Olivera would have similar difficulties at the plate as result of changing positions, I don't see the utility in finding out.

Complicating everything is the thrombosis that forced Olivera to sit out the 52nd Serie Nacional. While he did return for the 53rd annual competition and had a fairly successful season, there were a few red flags. While not necessarily a prolific power hitter, the seven home runs he belted were his fewest since the 45th Serie Nacional (2005-2006) and the first time in six years that he totaled only a single-digit home run total. In addition, he spent most of the season as a DH, playing 29 games at second base and the remaining 44 as the designated hitter. While he has played DH in the past, his number of games played as a DH in 2013-2014 was unusually high. Throw in his relatively advanced age and it makes one wonder: Were those numbers indicative of a player shaking off the rust or of a player starting down the down arc of his career?

As a result of all of these red flags and question marks, it's hard to gauge the market for the middle infielder. By virtue of his advanced age, I don't think any contract that he signs will be particularly long or particularly exorbitant.