The Los Angeles Dodgers are unlike any other organization in the way they view money: not as a rarity to be doled out but as a lubricant to keep the market for major leaguers flowing in the direction they want. Less than 18 months ago the Dodgers shelled out $62.5 million for Cuban free agent Héctor Olivera, a second or third baseman, depending on where LA could find a place for his bat.
In March of 2015, Olivera was merely the most recent acquisition as part of the Cuban resurgence including Yoenis Céspedes, Yasiel Puig, José Iglesias, Alex Guerrero, and José Abreu. But there was a difference: Olivera was already 30 years old. The traditional aging curve placing players at their peak around age 27 would have put Olivera just past his best years. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Mookie Betts are just some of the young players debuting essentially fully formed and delivering monster seasons almost immediately. Ichiro Suzuki collected his 3000th MLB hit over the weekend, but like nearly everything with Ichiro, he’s the outlier, debuting at 27 and having a full, productive career in America after being a superstar in Japan.
After a cup of coffee in the Dodgers minor league system—just six games—Olivera was traded to the Atlanta Braves. Yes. That fast. Before even his first MLB trade deadline had come and gone Olivera was on his way to the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers, looking for pitching, acquired young lefty starter Alex Wood to bolster a rotation that had suffered a number of injuries.
Taking on Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett just to get Adrian Gonzalez was the first sign that the Dodgers were going to flex their financial muscle. Three years later outbidding teams, including the Braves, in the spring gave the team a trade chip for the deadline. Draft picks aren’t (usually) trade-able in baseball but this was a clever way around that. Cuba is still a place baseball teams can spend freely and the LA brain trust was able to play that card two times: acquiring Olivera and then trading him. At the time his upside was still to come and while it didn’t make sense for the Braves to add a player likely entering his decline phase before the team rebuilt, clearly it seemed to make sense in Atlanta.
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On September 1, Olivera made his debut for the Braves. In 24 games he hit .253/.310/.405 with two home runs, 12 strikeouts, and five walks. In the 2016 Baseball Prospectus annual his comment concluded with “[t]he Braves have a lot riding on Olivera, and they expect him to be a middle-of-the-order hitter, At least he looks the part: He could easily win Most Ripped Player if that were a thing.”
And so it looked like maybe after a winter and full spring training that Olivera might help the Braves stay somewhat respectable by having a few real major league pieces on a gutted roster.
Spring did not turn out how the club wanted: an arrest for domestic violence quickly led to administrative leave from which Olivera never returned. With no track record of play, off-field incidents, and a contract that still needed to be paid, the Braves moved on. One day before the deadline, Atlanta shipped their troubled asset to the San Diego Padres for another former Dodger: Matt Kemp. Olivera was subsequently designated for assignment, acquired more so that Kemp would be traded rather than sold.
Theory: “Hector Olivera” isn’t actually a person who plays baseball, rather it’s a code used in an inscrutable money laundering operation.
— P (@Toirtap) July 30, 2016
Matt Kemp is not nearly the player he used to be but he can man the outfield and still hit for power. And of course, he isn’t suspended. At this point bringing in a veteran major leaguer can help show that the Braves are spending money, provide a little leadership, and at least give the fans a recognizable name as the prospects begin to ascend from the farm system.
Matt Kemp: “I’ve never really played in a baseball town before. So, I am excited about that.”
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) August 2, 2016
Unless he’s bought into the Braves rebuild, Atlanta might not be much of a baseball city during his stay.