PHILADELPHIA – Four months after being outbid for Cuban free agent Hector Olivera by the deep-pockets Dodgers, the Braves will get him at a reduced rate in terms of cash. But the overall price is nonetheless significant.
In a complicated three-team trade with the Dodgers and Marlins, the Braves gave the Dodgers left-handed starter Alex Wood, relievers Jim Johnson and lefty Luis Avilan, and top prospect Jose Peraza. Olivera, 30, is coming to Atlanta from the Dodgers with injured lefty reliever Paco Rodriguez and middling minor league pitcher Zachary Bird.
Since the Braves still lack top-tier hitting prospects in the highest levels of their minor league systen, they opted to acquire what they believe to be an impact hitter by trading for him from a position of strength — pitching.
“As we start to retool this offense, this is the first building block, I think,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. “Look, we just don’t have the upper-level bats that are in the (minor league) system. We’re going to have to be creative in how we bring in some of these guys….
“I love Alex Wood. I do. He’s a young pitcher, left-handed, there’s a lot to like about Alex Wood,” Hart said. “There’s a lot to like about Jose Peraza, We quite frankly didn’t feel, with our people, that Jose was going to be ready to step in and play second base next year; there’s still more development time, if you will. We’ve been happy with what we’ve seen from Jace Peterson.”
Two other key components of the deal for the Braves: They get the Marlins’ competitive-balance Round A pick in next year’s draft (35th overall selection), and sent Bronson Arroyo on the Dodgers, getting out from under part of Arroyo’s $9.5 million salary this season and the $4.5 million buyout of his $11 million option for 2016.
Arroyo, who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery, came from Arizona as an add-on whom the Braves had to take in order to get pitching prospect Touki Toussaint in a June 20 trade.
In the three-team deal finalized Thursday, the Dodgers also got starting pitcher Mat Latos and first baseman Michael Morse from Miami, while the Marlins would get three minor league pitchers (Kevin Guzman, Jeff Brigham, Victor Araujo) from the Dodgers.
Perhaps the most surprising inclusion was Wood, 24, who is 21-20 with a 3.10 ERA in 86 games during parts of three seasons in the majors 337 strikeouts and 108 walks in 368 2/3 innings. That includes a 3.09 ERA in 55 starts.
A second-round pick out of the University of Georgia, Wood was under contractual control for four more seasons.
Johnson has had a strong season – 2.25 ERA, 60.8-percent groundball rate in 48 innings — after signing a one-year, $1.6 million contract with the Braves, serving as a setup man and most recently as closer. The departure of Johnson and Avilan further depletes a bullpen that’s struggled mightily at times.
Peraza turned 21 in April and was regarded as the Braves’ top-rated prospect after the 2014 season. But he was blocked at his original shortstop position by defensive extraordinaire Andrelton Simmons, so the Braves moved Peraza to second base last season and tried him at center field some this year. The rise of 18-year-old shortstop Ozzie Albies and other young infield prospects turned Peraza’s status from nearly untouchable to expendable rather quickly.
Olivera drew considerable interest from at least eight teams after the former Cuban National Team standout defected in September and was declared a free agent in early March. The Dodgers outbid the Giants, Padres, Athletics and Braves, among other teams, giving Olivera a six-year, $62.5 million deal that included a $28 million signing bonus.
The Dodgers are paying his entire signing bonus, and the Braves will owe Olivera about $32 million over the remainder of the contract. He can play left field and every infield position except shortstop, and the Braves believe he’s best suited for third base. He hasn’t played in the majors, but could join their lineup soon after his strained hamstring heals. They hope to have him in rehab games in another week to 10 days.
“You look out onto the market and it’s just tough to find those bats,” Hart said. “We don’t want to give up our draft picks (to sign big-ticket free agents). We were able to get a bat that we feel is affordable to us. The fact that they paid the signing bonus, we feel that this is going to give us the opportunity to go do more things to build the club.”
One prominent international scout said during spring training that Olivera, who is about 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, could be expected to hit .280 with around 20 home runs in a full major league season. Hart compared him to Travis Fryman, a .274 career hitter who had seven 20-homer seasons in his 13-year career, and also said Olivera reminded him offensively of former Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen.
After a delayed start due to his late signing with the Dodgers, Olivera hit .348 (24-for-69) with five extra-base hits (two home runs), a .392 OBP and .885 OPS in 19 games for three minor league affiliates, including .387 (12-for-31) with a double, a triple and a home run in seven games for Triple-A Oklahoma City. He hasn’t played in 2 ½ weeks.
Some have questioned the wisdom of trading for a 30-year-old with no big-league experience, but Hart said the Braves believe Olivera is in the prime of his career and will contribute for the length of his contract, including when the Braves move into their new ballpark in 2017 and beyond.
“Absolutely,” Hart said. “I think ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19, ’20. We’re getting this guy from age 30 to 34. You never know what there’s going to be, what kind of decline. I was fortunate to have Adrian Beltre over in Texas, and this guy aged very, very well. But I think this guy (Olivera) is still in the prime of his career, and if this guy could go out on the (free-agent) market he’d be looking at at least a five-year deal, and would certainly be a different set of economics.
“Our guys like the bat and feel like this is going to be a good piece for us. Give Freddie (Freeman) some protection in that lineup as we go forward. And I think as we build a lineup, this is a guy that can hit somewhere in the four to six range (in the order) and be productive. It’s a good fit for us. He’s in great shape, he’s got tremendous makeup. Fredi (Gonzalez) spent a lot of time down there (talking with Olivera this winter) and really liked the kid. All of our guys did. He’s a pro’s pro. Good family. This is a guy that’s going to show up. He’s a real professional.”
When the bidding for Olivera heated up in the spring, some teams shied away due to health concerns. A blood disorder kept him out of games for much of two recent seasons, and he’s had some issues with the collateral ligament of his throwing elbow, though Hart said he passed the Braves’ physical and there were no problems with the elbow.
In 10 seasons in Serie Nacional, Cuba’s highest-level league, Olivera had a .323 average with 96 home runs and 433 RBI. He had bests of 17 homers in 60 games in the 2011-2012 season and a .353 average in 2007-2008.
Rodriguez, 24, will miss at least most of the remaining season after surgery in late June to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. A second-round pick in 2012, he has a 2.53 ERA in 124 appearances over parts of four seasons, with 91 strikeouts and 30 walks in 85 1/3 innings. His career .189 opponents’ average includes .174 by lefties.
Rodriguez is under contractual control through the 2019 season.
With Wood, there has been speculation since the day he was drafted that his unorthodox delivery might make him susceptible to arm injuries. He had Tommy John elbow surgery while still in high school, but hasn’t had a significant injury since. Wood hasn’t been as consistent this season, going 7-6 with a 3.54 ERA in 20 starts, with a reduction in strikeouts (90) and 36 walks in 119 1/3 innings.
Avilan has a 2.77 ERA in 218 appearances over parts of four seasons, including a stellar 1.52 ERA in 75 appearances in his first full season in 2013. He’s been inconsistent at times since then, and had a 3.58 ERA in 50 appearances this season, with better numbers against right-handers (including a .200 opponents’ average) than vs. lefties (.294).
Peraza hit a career-best .339 with a .364 OBP, 33 extra-base hits (11 triples, two homers) and 60 stolen bases in 110 games between high-A and Double-A in 2014. This season, as one of the younger players in the Triple-A International League, he was batting .294 with a modest .318 OBP, 20 extra-base hits (seven triples, three homers) and 26 steals in 96 games for Gwinnett. His OPS is .697, down from .806 last season.
The other pitcher coming to the Braves, Dodgers minor leaguer Bird, is a 6-foot-4 right-hander who was a ninth-round pick in 2012 out of a Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss. He’s 16-25 with a 4.74 ERA in 83 games (71 starts) over four seasons, with a lot of strikeouts (345) and too many walks (184) in 351 innings, all in Single-A and rookie ball.
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