Atlanta Braves: Looking back at the Hector Olivera trade disaster

Sep 29, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Hector Olivera (28) reacts after he is hit by a pitch in the fifth inning of their game against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Hector Olivera (28) reacts after he is hit by a pitch in the fifth inning of their game against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

In 2015, the Atlanta Braves were in the middle of their rebuild. At the trade deadline, however, they traded for Hector Olivera in a three-team trade that looked pretty bad at the time. Somehow, it got even worse.

Just a year later, Olivera’s time with the Braves was over after just 30 games with the team. He was suspended for more games than he had played, traded by the Braves, and released. The Braves GM, John Coppolella, even publicly said he regretted the trade.

But what did the Braves, and specifically Coppolella, see in the 30-year-old who had just 19 career professional games with the Dodgers organization? Why were the Dodgers, who had just signed him to a six-year, $62.5 million contract just months earlier willing to trade him?

The Atlanta Braves couldn’t afford Hector Olivera when he signed

Coming into 2015, Hector Olivera was among the top Cuban baseball players looking to sign. He was also easily the oldest. While Yoan Moncada and Yadier Alvarez were teenagers, Olivera was 29 when he signed.

However, despite his age, Olivera had years of success in Cuba. In his 10 seasons in the Cuban National Series, the Cuban version of MLB, Olivera had a .323/.407/.505 slashline across 792 games. For reference, Yoenis Céspedes had a .319/.403/.585 slashline in 701 games during his eight seasons in the CNS.

The Braves were among a handful of teams, including the Dodgers and Marlins who were interested in the Cuban infield during the signing period.

Olivera ultimately decided to sign with the Dodgers. However, the six-year deal wasn’t so straightforward. While Olivera was guaranteed $62.5 million, he was only set to make $5.75 million per season over the duration of the six years. This is because nearly half of the guaranteed money came from his signing bonus.

Why did the Dodgers trade Hector Olivera?

Less than 130 days after signing the infielder, the Dodgers traded Hector Olivera to the Braves. Why was Los Angeles, who had spent $62.5 million just months earlier, so willing to trade him? After all, they were still on the hook for the $28 million signing bonus.

It’s not as though Olivera had played poorly in the minors. While he had only appeared in 19 games due to injury, he had a slashline of .348/.392/.493 across three levels with the Dodgers farm teams.

But there had been concerns with Hector Olivera, even at signing. When Olivera and the Dodgers agreed to the six-year deal, there was concern that he might need Tommy John Surgery at some point. Because of this, the Dodgers had added an extra option year worth $1 million if he had the surgery at any point during the contract.

Olivera’s short tenure with the Dodgers was cut short by an injured hamstring as well. That and a visa issue limited him to the 19 games he ended up suiting up with the Dodgers’ affiliates.

However, neither the injury nor the threat of injury is likely what made the Dodgers pull the trigger on the 13-player trade that sent Olivera to the Braves. It was the Dodgers’ need for pitching.

In his article announcing the trade, Mark Bowman received this quote from the Braves’ President at the time, John Hart.

"“[The Dodgers] weren’t looking to move Olivera at all,” Hart said. “But I think as we walked through it and began to expand it over the last 48 to 72 hours, we felt there would be some legs to the deal.”"

Essentially, the Braves paid such a premium for Olivera that the Dodgers couldn’t say no. Looking at the deal now, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Breaking down the Hector Olivera trade

You probably remember the Hector Olivera trade as a disaster, but you might not remember just how big the trade was, or even everyone who was in it. Before we talk about players, however, we have to talk about what allowed this trade to take place in the first place.

The biggest component of this trade happening was the Dodgers’ disregard for money at the time. Aside from some of the key players I’ll discuss in a minute, the Dodgers acquired two players who didn’t play an inning for the club. On the whole, Los Angeles ate a total of $43.5 million.

Michael Morse was acquired from the Marlins and was still owed $10.7 million between the remainder of 2015 and 2016. He had a 65 wRC+ and had been worth -0.8 fWAR with Maimi. He was immediately traded by Los Angeles and was merely a means for the Dodgers to acquire Mat Latos from the Marlins as well, who was one of the two main starters in this deal.

At the time, the Dodgers really needed starting pitching, as the team was being carried by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke, with Brett Anderson performing decently.

Latos was one of the two starting pitchers the Dodgers acquired in this trade. While this half of the trade with the Marlins was a costly addition in terms of salary, it only cost them three low-level prospects.

On the Braves’ side of the trade, it cost them a bit more. Olivera wasn’t the only player the Braves acquired. In addition to the infielder, the team also acquired reliever Paco Rodriguez, minor leaguer Zachary Bird from the Dodgers, and a 2016 Competitive Balance pick from the Marlins  that ultimately became Joey Wentz.

The Braves saw all three assets acquired in addition to Olivera as players who could contribute to the team at the major league level.

Rodriguez was only 24 years old and had pitched for the Dodgers in four seasons. His career ERA was 2.53 in 85.1 innings. At the time, he was out with a bone spur injury, but it’s easy to see how the Braves believed he could be a solid middle-inning guy.

Zachary Bird was a 20-year-old starter who was in high-A and was Los Angeles’ 10th-best prospect. While his 4.75 ERA across 89 innings with Rancho Cucamonga wasn’t eye-popping, he had a live fastball. This was given a 65 grade by MLB Pipeline.

While not in the trade itself, the Competitive Balance pick turned into a 40th overall pick in 2016, which the Braves used on high school pitcher, Joey Wentz. The lefty was considered one of the top prospects in the draft but had fallen to 40th.

And of course, there was Hector Olivera, an infielder with a solid track record in the CNS who the Braves believed could become their long-term 3B. Because the Braves weren’t paying the signing bonus, either, they only owed him $31.25 million over the five and half years he was under contract. At roughly a $5.6 million AAV, this could be a steal if he was the high OBP, 20-homer-a-year player the Braves believed he was.

Two major league-level players, a prospect, and a draft pick don’t come cheap, however. And for the Dodgers, their willingness to accept this deal meant that the Braves had made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Bronson Arroyo was the easiest player for the Braves to part with. He never pitched an inning for the team and was only acquired by the Braves only a month earlier in a trade that allowed Atlanta to acquire Touki Toussaint.

Arroyo was expensive. In addition to the remainder of the $9.5 he was owed for 2015, he also had a $4.5 million buyout for 2016. Of course, for the Dodgers, who had no care for money, taking on Arroyo’s contract simply allowed them to acquire more quality.

It’s rare for a contending team to be acquiring a top prospect at the deadline, but that’s what the Dodgers did when they acquired Jose Peraza from the Braves. At only 21 years old, Peraza was the 38th-best prospect in the majors coming into the 2015 season. The infielder had already reached AAA, and was hitting .294/.318/.379 with 26 steals to his name.

The Dodgers already had one of the best infield prospects in baseball with Corey Seager, so adding Peraza essentially gave them an additional asset who could either move around the infield, or a prospect they could package in a different deal.

Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan were two relievers who were having solid years out of the pen for the Braves. Johnson was having a rebound year with Atlanta after a disastrous 2014. In 48 innings, Johnson had a 2.25 ERA. Avilan was in his fourth season with the Braves and had a 3.58 ERA in 37.2 innings.

Johnson was only under contract for the remainder of 2015, but Avilan still had three more years of arbitration left. The two could give Los Angeles extra reliability in the middle innings, which was more or less a revolving door for the Dodgers.

If it were just these four players, the deal wouldn’t look so bad for Atlanta. Giving up a top prospect in a rebuilt year isn’t an easy pill to swallow, but two relievers and an injured starting pitcher for a draft pick, a prospect, a reliever, and the potential long-term 3B could easily be worth it.

Unfortunately, the player John Coppolella added to make it irresistible for the Dodgers was Alex Wood. While Wood had never been considered a top prospect, he had been a solid starter for the Braves for three seasons now.

He had been worth 6.7 fWAR across the three seasons and was only 24. He was the second-best pitcher on the Braves from 2013-2015, and despite pitching 239 fewer innings than Julio Teheran, he only accumulated 0.7 fWAR less than Teheran.

In a way, you could argue he was the best starter on the Braves, and Copolella traded him an expensive unknown.

Was the Hector Olivera trade that bad?

Yes. In fact, just a year after the trade, during an Ask Coppy session on Twitter, Copolella tweeted this in response to a question on the trade.

And, if you’re not fully convinced that the GM regretted the trade, just a year later, Coppolella tweeted this in a different Ask Coppy session when asked if he regretted trading Alex Wood.

If you’re not familiar with Hector Olivera, you might wonder what made the trade so regrettable so quickly.

To start, you have to look at Olivera himself. The 3B spent 12 games with the Braves minor league teams. While he hit poorly in his 37 AAA PAs (.114/.135/.143), the short sample nature of meant it was hard to really make strong inferences about how his performance would translate to the major leagues.

Hector Olivera made his debut on September 1st, 2015. In the 24 games he played down the stretch, he hit .253/.310/.405, which was good for a 96 wRC+. This wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t exactly translate into “3B of the future” numbers, especially for a 30-year-old.

More concerningly (at least at the time), was his defense. In just 168 innings, he accumulated -2 DRS and -32.6 UZR/150. This is as bad as you can have defensively. In fact, just four months after acquiring him to be the 3B of the future, the Braves were already moving him to LF.

He would start the 2016 season as the starting LF, with Adonis García winning the starting 3B role. In Olivera’s six games with the Braves in 2016, he was quite terrible, as he somehow put up -0.3 fWAR in just 21 PAs, with his defense even worse in the outfield as it had been in the infield.

However, his terribleness on the field paled in comparison to his terribleness off the field. On April 13, 2016, he was arrested for domestic assault and suspended for 82 games by MLB. Months later, he was found guilty and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

By this point, he wasn’t on the Braves, as he had been traded to the Padres for Matt Kemp in what was essentially a bad contract swap. The Padres released him immediately.

As for the rest of the players who the Braves acquired, none of them played for the Braves major league team.

While Paco Rodriguez was seen as someone who could contribute to the Braves’ bullpen in 2015, injuries never gave him a chance. Unfortunately, Rodriguez would require Tommy John Surgery in September, shutting him down completely for the 2016 season. He’d compete for a job in 2017 Spring Training, but ultimately would be released and would not make it back to the majors, last pitching in the minor leagues for the Padres organization in 2019.

Zachary Bird never lived up to his potential, as he only pitched a season and a half in the Braves organization before being selected by the Rangers in the minor league portion of the 2016 Rule 5 Draft and never pitching again.

Joey Wentz showed potential for the Braves after being picked, working his way up to AA with the Braves before being traded for Shane Greene in 2019.

Of course, the lack of production by the players the Braves acquired and Olivera’s arrest and the subsequent guilty charge only made for one-half of a bad trade.

While Bronson Arroyo didn’t pitch for the Dodgers and Jim Johnson was horrible in his 23 games for Los Angeles (10.13 ERA), the Dodgers still walked a way with a steal of a trade.

Luis Avilan eventually became a solid reliever out of the Dodgers bullpen. His 2015 was underwhelming, as he had a 5.17 ERA in 15.2 innings, but his 3.64 FIP indicated a bit of bad luck. His next two seasons with LA saw him contribute 1.1 fWAR across 65.2 innings. He was eventually traded in another three-team trade in 2018.

Jose Peraza was indeed used as trade bait, as he was also in a different three-player trade that involved Todd Frazier going to the White Sox in the 2015-2016 offseason. Peraza would have a cup of coffee with the Dodgers before being traded, appearing in seven games and hitting .182/.250/.318. Frankie Montas was the biggest acquisition by the Dodgers in the Peraza trade, and he was eventually used to acquire Josh Reddick and Rich Hill.

The hardest pill to swallow at the time of the trade ended up being easily the best player, in retrospect. In Wood’s three-and-a-half years with LA (at least in his first stint with the Dodgers), he became one of the team’s best starters. By fWAR, he was the third-best pitcher in that time span, putting up 7.1 fWAR in 434 innings. He was even an All-Star in 2017, also finishing 9th in Cy Young voting.

In total, the Braves got -0.3 fWAR and a PR nightmare, as well as the privilege of paying a player convicted of domestic violence $31.25 million contract that eventually turned into Matt Kemp’s $54 million (though the Padres covered $10 million of that).

The Dodgers got 7.1 fWAR from Wood, 1.2 fWAR from Avilan, and a prospect who eventually helped net them Rich Hill. The only minor inconvenience was the money they took on from Arroyo and the negative production from Jim Johnson (and from the Marlins end of the trade, poor production from Mat Latos and money from Michael Morse).

While Peraza never panned out, Luis Avilan was a run-of-the-mill reliever, and even though Jim Johnson was a net negative, the inclusion of Alex Wood for what was worth less than nothing made the trade look bad at the time and disastrous in retrospect.