So much about Hector Olivera is an unknown commodity. How will the 30-year-old Cuban stack up against major league pitching? Is he the answer the Braves have been looking for at third base and the middle of the order since Chipper Jones retired at the end of 2012?
Was he worth giving up proven young pitching talent like Alex Wood, prospect Jose Peraza, relievers Luis Avilan and Jim Johnson? Is the $32 million the Braves owe him of the $62.5 million, five-year contract he signed with the Dodgers a colossal mistake or a bargain?
While Olivera is in Triple-A, where he is expected to stay at least until rosters expand Tuesday, there’s no way to know. But what was clear early this week in Charlotte with the Gwinnett Braves, was this:
“He’s important,” Braves director of player development Dave Trembley said.
Trembley used the word “important” five times in reference to Olivera. He said it just as emphatically with his actions.
Trembley, who oversees the Braves minor-league system, is personally overseeing the development of Olivera. Trembley was with Olivera in Orlando when he began his assignment two weeks ago. Trembley missed Olivera’s four games in Rome, but caught up with him again last week in Gwinnett. He traveled to Charlotte this week and was headed back to Gwinnett on Thursday with plans to stay by Olivera’s side until he gets the callup.
Lee Elia, a senior advisor to player development, was with Olivera in Charlotte, too. Minor-league infield coordinator Luis Lopez was there working with him at third base. And Alex Cotto, director of the Braves’ Latin American administration, is traveling with Olivera as his personal translator.
“He knows everybody’s looking at him,” Trembley said. “He knows why we’re here. I told him, ‘You know you’re very important to the Atlanta Braves.’ He said ‘Yeah, I know.’ I said, ‘We’re not trying to make you do anything you can’t do yet. But you’re important.’ He knows it. A lot is on his shoulders.”
So far, the results haven’t been convincing. Entering Thursday, Olivera was 7-for-41 (.171) with no extra-base hits and one RBI in 12 games in the Braves’ system. Tuesday in Charlotte was a bright spot, when he singled sharply in two at-bats, including a liner to center to drive in his first run with the Braves.
Olivera spent most of his career with the Cuban national team and Serie Nacional playing second base, so Lopez has worked with him on his arm slot and throwing no lower than three-quarters. Olivera bounced his first throw to first base Monday against Charlotte from a low arm angle. But he came more over the top with two strong throws later in the game.
“He’s got tools,” Trembley said. “He’s very strong. He’s got very good work habits. He needs at-bats. He needs to get in baseball shape by playing games. That’s really it in a nutshell. The more at-bats he gets, the more innings he plays, the better he’ll become.”
The Braves’ original plans have changed. At first, he figured to play three or four games in Gwinnett and join the Braves Monday for the start of the Rockies series. Then it was maybe the weekend series against the Yankees. Now it’s likely Sept. 1. To his credit, Olivera said he’s OK with whenever the Braves move him up.
“I’m here to compete,” Olivera said through Cotto. “I don’t worry about whether they bring me up or leave me here. I’m here to work hard and do my job and when it’s time for me to go up, I’ll go up. I’m here to give 100 percent and have a good spirit while I’m doing it.”
While the tendency is to rush him, the Braves have to consider what he’s been through in the last year. This time last September Olivera defected from Santiago de Cuba to Haiti and didn’t play organized baseball during that time. He signed with the Dodgers in March and never got a full spring training, then he missed a month starting in June with a hamstring injury. He said his hamstring is 100 percent, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable at the plate.
“He looked a lot more relaxed (Tuesday night),” Gwinnett Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He went out there like ‘OK, let’s just play baseball,’ which is understandable.”
Olivera declined to discuss the details of his defection, preferring to talk about what he appreciates about being in the U.S.
“It’s a big difference compared to Cuba,” Olivera said. “Here, for instance, when you work, you get paid. They pay well here. In Cuba, you work, you might not get paid. Baseball here is a lot more organized than over there. You’re working on strictly baseball. Over there, you play baseball, but then you’ve got to struggle to live your life outside the game.”
The difficult part, Olivera said, is missing his family. His 5-year-old son and his son’s mother defected with him to Haiti, but they are still working through the immigration process to join him in the United States.
In the meantime, not only is Olivera acclimating to a new country, playing in six minor league cities already — but now a new team.
Cotto said Olivera enjoyed visiting his new Braves teammates when they were playing the Devil Rays in Tampa. It meant a lot to him that Nick Swisher wished him well and pointed out that his wife JoAnna Garcia Swisher is of Cuban descent.
Olivera is “Hec” already to Snitker and his teammates. And playing Charlotte gave him a chance to talk to fellow Cubans Onelki Garcia and Dayan Viciedo; Viciedo was a former teammate on the Cuban national team.
As for his reaction to how important he is to the Braves?
“It feels good,” Olivera said. “I feel proud. I’m happy. But I’m here, working, striving to get better, so that when I do go to the big-league club I can contribute.”