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As the A’s attempt to upgrade their roster before spring training, don’t be surprised if the international free agent market is an option they explore.
Granted, it’s not the only route they can go to fill needs. Oakland has stockpiled enough prospects through trades of several All-Stars that it can now look to spin some of those players into one or more deals to improve the team for 2015. Tampa Bay utility man Ben Zobrist is one player they’ve been linked to, and his name would look nice penciled in at second base for the A’s.
But consider a recent report from Baseball America’s Ben Badler, citing “industry” sources that list Oakland as one of three teams with significant interest in Cuban second baseman Hector Olivera. The New York Yankees and San Diego Padres are the other two.
Olivera, who turns 30 in April, comes with some red flags as health issues have limited him significantly over the last two years. That means there’s not a solid body of work, at least recently, for which scouts can evaluate him.
He’s hardly the youngest player from Cuba to consider making the jump to the major leagues, and that’s something to consider. He also must first establish residency in another country and be cleared by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control before he’s eligible to sign with anybody. That’s a process that could take a while to play out.
But that’s just the point. The A’s are in position to play the waiting game on a player such as Olivera. The major league free agent market doesn’t prove all that enticing this winter when it comes to middle infielders, and some of the top targets have signed already.
Oakland saved significant money by dealing Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija this winter – players projected to earn a combined $21.1 million through arbitration, according to projections by mlbtraderumors.com. General manager Billy Beane and assistant G.M. David Forst both talked during the winter meetings of the advantages of having money to spend late in the offseason, when other teams are tapped out financially.
That’s when a player such as the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Olivera could come into play. Badler cites a combination of power, athleticism and speed that he believes makes Olivera a better all-around player than outfielder Yasmany Tomas, another Cuban who signed a six-year, $68.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks in December. Badler even compares Olivera to Yasiel Puig -- a fascinating package of talent and risk factors for the team that signs him.
Among those risk factors for Olivera reportedly are a blood disorder that sidelined him for the entire 2012-13 Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top professional league. But he returned for the 2013-14 season and posted a .316/.412/.474 line with seven home runs in 273 plate appearances. The Serie Nacional is a 90-game season. From 2008-12, Olivera’s season-ending batting averages ranged from .318 to .353, and he hit between 10 and 17 home runs.
There are no shortage of questions to consider. Will Olivera’s health be an issue moving forward? How will he adjust to the rise in competition from Cuba to the big leagues?
But there also were major questions surrounding outfielder Yoenis Cespedes when he defected from Cuba and made himself available to major league teams before the 2012 season. The A’s were the surprise winner for his services, completing the signing after spring training had started in February, and they were rewarded with a player who was an All-Star in 2014.
Oakland has shown a willingness to take the risk on an international player with question marks but big-time upside. Perhaps the A’s will be ready to make that gamble again.