In what is shaping up as their worst season since 1990, the Atlanta Braves at least have a little something to be excited about in the final month of the season.
Cuban defector Hector Olivera was called up for Tuesday's game against the Miami Marlins, looking to show he was worth the steep price the Braves paid to land him just before the deadline for non-waiver trades. The 30-year-old was batting sixth and playing third base in his major league debut.
"This is the first step, so there are some nerves," Olivera said through a translator, sitting in the dugout at Turner Field during batting practice. "But I don't feel that nervous. I'm here now. It's time to get started."
Olivera was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a blockbuster, 13-player deal that also included the Marlins. The Braves showed just how much they valued the infielder, giving up starting pitcher Alex Wood, relievers Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, and top prospect Jose Peraza.
The Braves, who have focused on acquiring young pitching during a difficult rebuilding year, believe Olivera can eventually be a key offensive contributor. They tried to sign him before the season after he defected from Cuba, but he wound up going to the Dodgers for a six-year, $62.5 million contract that included a $28 million signing bonus.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez knows it's a bit of a gamble to give up so much for a player who had never been in the major leagues. Given his age and background, Olivera certainly isn't the typical rookie.
"You see the swing and say, 'That's going to work in the big leagues,'" Gonzalez said. "But you just never know until you run him out there and he plays."
Olivera has missed extensive time this season with a hamstring injury. He played only 19 games with three minor league teams while with the Dodgers, and got into 16 games with three more teams in Atlanta's organization after the trade. At Triple-A Gwinnett, he hit .231 with no homers and three RBIs in 10 games before getting the call to the majors.
"Every day felt like part of the process," he said. "I'm not 100 percent quite yet, but I'm very close. I think in the next three days, I will be where I need to be."
Olivera, who doesn't speak English, should have an easier transition with the Braves. Gonzalez speaks fluent Spanish, as do three of his coaches — Carlos Tosca, Eddie Perez and Jose Castro — and coaching assistant Horacio Ramirez. In addition, Olivera is close to Braves third baseman Adonis Garcia, another former player on the Cuban national team.
"It's only going to make it that much better for me because we are such good friends," Olivera said.
Gonzalez hasn't decided how much Olivera will play with the Braves, but he figures to get extensive time in the last 31 games. After all, Atlanta really has nothing to lose, going into Tuesday's contest mired in a six-game losing streak and having lost 13 of 14, dropping to 54-77 for the season.
Olivera said this is an important time to get some confidence and experience heading into 2016.
"A lot of players have already played over 100 games this season," he said. "I'm catching up. I'm ready to get doing, carry that into the offseason, and be ready to go in spring training."