Should Jays pursue Cuban defector Olivera?


* The Toronto Blue Jays, with their lack of options at second base, should take a long look at Cuban Hector Olivera, says CBN’s Nick Ashbourne. Olivera, 29, posted a .316/.412/.474 line in 2014 and is ranked the sixth-best player in Cuba by Baseball America. ….

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By Nick Ashbourne

The Toronto Blue Jays have found themselves caught in the middle once again.

For the seventh time in the last 10 seasons, the team has posted between 80 and 87 wins and has fallen short of the playoffs, extending the drought to 21 seasons. The Blue Jays of the last decade have rarely been awful, but they’ve failed to be much better than just OK.

In the wake of “The Trade”, this team wasn’t supposed to be average, it was designed to be a serious contender. While the benefit of hindsight reveals some cracks in that blueprint, the Blue Jays are far from a hopeless outfit, especially if they make some prudent moves in the off-season.

It’s unclear exactly how much money the team will have to spend on free agents going into 2015, but they would be wise to take a very long look at a man who’s hardly a household name: Hector Olivera.

Olivera, 29, is a second baseman who recently defected from Cuba whom Baseball America ranks as the number six player in his home country.

The Serie Nacional veteran put up a .316/.412/.474 line last season and impressed scouts with excellent plate discipline, posting more walks (38) than strikeouts (25).

He also has a history of putting the ball over the fence, as he claimed a home run derby championship in 2012 with his impressive power stroke.

Not only does Olivera look like an enticing talent, but Cuban hitters have become safer and safer bets in recent years.

The chart below shows the last 10 position players to defect from Cuba and how they’ve performed in the major leagues.

Player Runs Home Runs RBI Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Percentage
Rusney Castillo 6 2 6 .333 .400 .528
Jorge Soler 11 5 20 .292 .330 .573
Erisbel Arruebarrena 4 0 4 .195 .244 .220
Jose Abreu 80 36 107 .317 .383 .581
Alex Guerrero 0 0 0 .077 .077 .077
Henry Urrutia 5 0 2 .276 .276 .310
Yasiel Puig 158 35 111 .305 .386 .502
Adeiny Hechavarria 93 6 91 .251 .286 .331
Yoenis Cespedes 233 71 262 .263 .316 .464
Leonys Martin 142 15 95 .264 .316 .375

Many of these players are just getting their careers started, but the success rate here is very high and both Castillo and Soler look very promising going forward.

Whether it’s improved player development in Cuba, or better scouting by major league teams, the reality is that signing Cuban players carries less risk right now than at any time in recent memory.

Another reason the Blue Jays need to consider Olivera is that their second base situation leaves much to be desired. While the team has moved Brett Lawrie there at times, his best position is clearly the hot corner.

Over the last two years, the names manning second base have ranged from Maicer Izturis to Munenori Kawasaki, and none of them have gotten the job done.

The following table shows what the Jays have received from their second basemen during that span and how that production ranks league-wide.

Runs Home Runs RBI Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Percentage fWAR
100 (30th) 14 (24th) 85 (29th) .233 (26th) 277 (29th) .324 (27th) -1.2 (30th)

Clearly something needs to be done, and a domestic free agent pool highlighted by retreads like Emilio Bonifacio, Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts isn’t going to fix the problem.

One concern with pursuing Olivera is the idea that he’d be too expensive for the Jays. After all, Rogers has a reputation for being tight with its money, and the price of Cuban imports has been on rise.

The last high-profile Cuban defector to sign was Castillo, and he received a seven-year, $72 million deal while Yoenis Cespedes, arguably a more highly-touted player, inked a four-year, $36 million pact in 2012.

Olivera’s age and the fact that he missed the 2012-2013 season with a bicep issue will probably drive his price lower than Castillo’s, but he is unlikely to come cheap.

Luckily, the Blue Jays will have some money to play with heading into 2015. Casey Janssen, Brandon Morrow, Sergio Santos, and Colby Rasmus are almost certainly out the door, and with them goes $22.8 million in salary obligations.

Adding in the probable departure of Melky Cabrera takes another $8 million off the books. And while some of the available funds may go to Cabrera’s replacement, it seems that Olivera could still be had by Toronto.

While plugging the holes in the outfield will likely be the dominant narrative of the Blue Jays’ offseason, the team has an even bigger hole at the keystone that needs fixing. There is no one within the organization capable of starting at second base, and the traditional free agent market is thin.

On the surface, the idea of investing serious money in a 29-year-old who has never played in the big leagues sounds borderline nuts, but it might be the only way to turn a crippling weakness into a strength.

And for a franchise with the longest-running playoff drought in the major leagues, doing something a little crazy may not be the worst idea.

– Follow Nick Ashbourne on Twitter @Nick_Ashbourne

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