Dodgers bet heavily on Hector Olivera’s elbow holding up

The Dodgers agreed to terms with Cuban infielder Hector Olivera on Tuesday. This took a lot longer than some expected, but it’s finally over.

That is, until Olivera goes for his physical and something is found that could delay the agreement even further. Case in point:

This had been rumored for some time, first reported by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. It’s nice to see it was finally confirmed, because I had heard similar info. That makes this whole deal a bit of a head-scratcher for me. I understand the free agent third base market is absolutely terrible the next couple of years, but I don’t understand the 6- and possibly 7-year commitment to Olivera who is about to turn 30 years old (even that isn’t fully confirmed, because there’s no way to really do so).

About that seventh year …

At least the Dodgers have some control of the situation. But I’m most concerned about Olivera’s damaged UCL. The Dodgers, prior to agreeing with Olivera, requested a second MRI from his camp. The request was initially denied, but it seems it may have given in. For a guy expected to play third base for the Dodgers — perhaps as soon as this summer — having a slight tear in the ligament could be problematic. The throw from third base to first is much more stressful than it is from second base, Olivera’s “natural” position. But there’s no chance he’s displacing Howie Kendrick, so third base is the only logical place Olivera could play with any regularity as the Dodgers are currently constructed.

Juan Uribe has averaged 118 games played in the last two seasons, so there’s a really good chance Olivera could see time there once he’s recalled. It also opens up time for Alex Guerrero and Justin Turner, but Olivera’s talent (and contract) trumps both of them. Plus, both are best-suited for part-time work.

There have been 30 position players to have Tommy John surgery while on the major-league roster, and the results post-surgery leave a lot to be desired.

Player Avg WAR after TJ
Paul Molitor 3.3
Carl Crawford 2.7
Kelly Johnson 2.0
Jose Canseco 1.8
Zack Cozart 1.8
Mike Greenwell 1.7
Chris Denorfia 1.1
Rocco Baldelli 0.8
Jay Buhner 0.8
Luis Gonzalez 0.8
Darryl Hamilton 0.8
Greg Colbrunn 0.7
Mike Aviles 0.6
Justin Maxwell 0.6
Kyle Blanks 0.5
Todd Hundley 0.3
Tony Womack 0.3
Dion James 0.2
Cesar Izturis 0.0
Ray Olmedo -0.1
John Baker -0.2
Rafael Furcal -0.2
Jose Guillen -0.2
Brad Hawpe -0.2
Steve Christmas N/A
Chris Coste N/A
Rusty Greer N/A
Norris Hopper N/A
Matt Wieters N/A
Vance Wilson N/A

Some of these guys played multiple seasons after the surgery, some a handful and some just one or two. Aside from one hall-of-famer (Molitor, whose defensive ability was limited after the surgery), the results haven’t been great. Crawford seems to be doing just fine, while Johnson is still hanging around as a utility player. Cozart is the Reds’ starting shortstop, but can’t hit a lick (probably has nothing to do with TJ). The amusing thing about Canseco’s inclusion is he actually hurt his elbow pitching with the Rangers.

Aside from Wieters, all the other “N/A” guys never played again after the surgery. Wieters, despite slowing down his rehab, is expected to be fine. He’s young enough that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him near the top of this list down the road.

So, if Olivera needs the surgery at some point, odds are he might not come back and be the player he once was (still unknown at this point), which makes this even harder to handicap. Every year Olivera doesn’t have the surgery is better for him and the Dodgers, really. If he needed the surgery this year, he’d be out until 2016 (when he’s expected to be the team’s starting third baseman), but he’d also lose one of his few remaining prime seasons. If he has it at, say, age-33, he won’t be impacted as much. But, he also runs the risk of having a tougher time recovering from the surgery, just as all older players do with surgeries. The prospect of having age-36 Olivera on a 1-year, $1 million deal is somewhat reassuring, but it also remains to be seen how he performs until that time.

And he may never need the surgery. A slightly/partially/insert adjective here UCL isn’t nearly as bad for a position player as it is for a pitcher. Position players tend to recover in 8-9 months, while pitchers take 13-14 months. But when the time comes for him to take a physical and the Dodgers don’t like what they see, the agreement could be altered. It’s what happened with Miguel Gonzalez and the Phillies in 2013.

The Dodgers must be betting on the fact his elbow will hold up for at least a few years, especially with the $28 million signing bonus that will, presumably, be paid out sooner rather than later. I’m not denying the Dodgers need a guy like this for the future, but I’m still left questioning the commitment — more the years than the money, because the average annual value is great for a starting third baseman. I said a 4-year, $50 million deal would be my max deal for him on the latest episode of the podcast.

Uribe and Kendrick are free agents after the season. Olivera is capable of playing either spot, but the Dodgers need him at third base more than second. The Dodgers could either look to extend/re-sign Kendrick or fill his spot with the likes of Turner, Guerrero, Darwin Barney and/or Darnell Sweeney. There is no contingency plan for third base, other than Corey Seager, which would open up shortstop.

Signing Olivera is a hell of a lot easier than trying to trade for Evan Longoria or David Wright, and he projects to be a lot better than a 37-year-old Uribe or impending free agent David Freese. When you look at the alternatives, perhaps this was the best move, but I’m not overly excited about it.

But the damage to his elbow — significant enough to be reported on — is unsettling. Hopefully it doesn’t negatively impact him, and hopefully he never needs TJ surgery. But that’s a lot of hope (and money) to place in the health of a 30-year-old’s elbow.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.