Braves’ Olivera era likely to begin next week

CHICAGO – The Olivera era in Atlanta is about to begin.

Hector Olivera had his rehab assignment moved up to Triple-A Gwinnett on Thursday, and there are indications the Cuban infielder’s much-anticipated major league debut with the Braves could be Monday against Colorado in the opener of a nine-game homestand.

Olivera hoped to join the Braves in Chicago during a four-game series against the Cubs that started Thursday and runs through Sunday. But Braves officials wanted him to play a few high-level minor league games to continue working on his timing at the plate and conditioning his legs after he missed several weeks with a strained hamstring.

He’s 30 and hasn’t played a major league game, but the Braves believe in Olivera enough to have given up one of their top prospects (infielder Jose Peraza) along with starting pitcher Alex Wood and relievers Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan in the recent three-team deal to bring the former Cuban national team and Serie Nacional standout to Atlanta.

Olivera was 1-for-17 in six rehab games before Thursday, the hit coming in a doubleheader Wednesday at low Single-A Rome. Olivera played four games at Rome, after playing two in the Gulf Coast League, where he impressed rehabbing Braves slugger Freddie Freeman. Olivera’s light-tower power hitting displays in batting practice gained a lot of notice.

“It’s like Evan Gattis hitting balls,” Freeman said. “He can hit them a long, long way.”

Some scouts have compared the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Olivera to former All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen in terms of size and power, and a general consensus is that he might be expected to hit .280-.290 with more than 20 homers in a major league season. But it’s difficult to project, given his age and background.

Olivera can play all the infield positions except shortstop, and can play left field. The Braves plan to make him their regular third baseman.

The Dodgers signed Olivera to a six-year, $62.5 million contract last winter, outbidding the Braves, Padres, Marlins and Yankees, after several other teams dropped out of the bidding due to the escalating price tag. The deal included a $28 million signing bonus, which the Dodgers are paying in full.

Freeman stands to benefit most from additional protection that Olivera could provide when he’s added to the middle of their lineup in the near future and for as much as the next five seasons. Freeman is the only Brave who’s seen Olivera play other than Adonis Garcia, who knows him from Cuba and played with Olivera years ago.

“He hits them a long ways in BP, but a lot of people hit balls a long way in BP,” Freeman said of Olivera. “Is it going to translate (into major league games)? I hope so. Because we gave up a lot for him. But we’ll see. We’ll find out in less than a week. Hopefully what they say about him is going to happen. I hope it translates. I really do. It’d be nice to see him coming up behind me.”

Coincidentally, it’s Garcia’s playing time that will be most affected by Olivera’s arrival. Garcia has been the Braves’ primary third baseman in recent weeks, but he might have to share time in left field with Michael Bourn and Jonny Gomes after Olivera arrives and takes over at third base.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has conceded it will be difficult to divvy up the playing time among those outfielders and Nick Swisher, but Olivera is expected to be the regular third baseman.

“He’s a big boy,” said Freeman, who believes that Olivera is closer to 6-3 and 230 pounds. “He can put on a show in BP (batting practice). I only saw the six at-bats in GCL; it’s hard to judge off that. But he looks good. He looks like he’s going to be an intimidating figure in the box, he’s a big guy. I think he’s still feeling for it coming back from the hamstring (injury), so it’s hard to tell. But I think he’s going to be a run-producer in the middle of the lineup….

Some pictures that circulated during the Olivera sweepstakes this winter showed a rangy-type athlete, long and slender, during his days with the Cuban national team and in the Serie Nacional, the highest-level league in Cuba. He doesn’t look like that anymore. He’s put together better than anyone on the current Braves roster, with wide shoulders an overall muscular physique.

Freeman had seen those same photos of Olivera from years ago, and was a bit surprised when he saw him in person.

“He’s filled out,” Freeman said. “He’s super strong. Remember Barbaro Canizares? (Another Cuban and a former Braves minor league first baseman, who was listed as 6-3 and 240.) He kind of looks like him, to me. Kind of walks like him too. But Barbaro was more of .300 hitter with not a lot of power. I think Hector’s going to hit for power.”

Gonzalez said the Braves haven’t set a specific date for Olivera’s major league debut, but acknowledged it could be Monday or Tuesday

“(The trade) was tough for me on a personal level because we traded, like, six guys for him,”Freeman said, “and he hasn’t played a game yet. So when that trade first went down, it’s a tough one to swallow. And then you see him and you see his swing and see what he looks like and you’re like, ok, this could be someone special for a few years. He is 30, 31, so I don’t know how long that’s going to last. But he is special-looking specimen.”

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