The Bucs big move during the baseball meetings? Swapping out C Ramón Cabrera for Tiger lefty Andy Oliver. Cabrera is an overachiever with potential as a reserve; Oliver has some upside that never was realized for the Motown. The Pirates are hoping a change of scenery will draw that potential from him.
Oliver was all-state performer at Vermilion High
School in Ohio, with a senior line of 6-0/0.40 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 52-2/3 innings, As a four year prep pitcher, he was 21-4-3/ 0.96 ERA with 354 K in 196 IP, the epitome of a power pitcher. Oliver ended up as a 17th-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, which would eventually get him in a brouhaha with the NCAA; more on that later.
He passed on the Twins offer, and went to Oklahoma State instead after considering offers from other schools like North Carolina and LSU.
Starting part-time as a freshman for the Cowboys, he spent the summer with the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League and was outstanding, going 1-1 with a 1.41 ERA and 54 punchouts in 45 IP. Baseball America took notice, and ranked him as the circuit's #10 prospect.
That showing primed him for a breakout campaign in 2008, and Oliver became one of the nation's top collegiate performers on the mound for OSU. He put up a slash of 7-2/2.20 ERA, earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and was named a second-team All-American by Rivals.com. Then, the day before he was to pitch in a playoff game, the NCAA came calling.
The organization ruled him ineligible because he had an agent talk to the Twins when they drafted him out of high school back in 2006. It was a tale that exposed baseball's underbelly. His first rep, Tim Barratta, had discussions with the Twins on his behalf, a no-no that to our knowledge has never been enforced and still continues unabated today.
Oliver then switched to Scott Boras, and the spurned Barratta turned in the violation. It ended up not a big deal; Oliver's suit was settled out of court, and he got $750,000 from the NCAA, which managed to keep the rule on the books even if it had no teeth. We'd suppose both sides were happy with the outcome.
He pitched for Team USA during the summer, and made four starts with a 2-0/0.93 slash. Oliver notched 24 K in 19-1/3 innings as part of a national club that went 24-0 record with a gold medal at the World Championships. The lefty looked to be a sure-fire first rounder after he completed his upcoming junior campaign. Well, it didn't quite work out that way.
After some control issues reared their ugly head on Team USA, he spent his junior year trying to smooth out his pitching mechanics. As a result, he went 5-6 /5.30 ERA. But Oliver still was a lefty with a power arm and sharp hook, recording more than a K per inning over his college career.
He was drafted by the Tigers in the second round of the 2009 draft, and signed late for a bonus of $1.495M, more than double the recommended slot. Oliver didn't sign in time to be assigned to a minor league club, but was sent to the Arizona Fall League. He went 1-1/2.81 with 16 Ks in 16 IP. Baseball America rated him as Detroit's #4 prospect.
Oliver made his pro debut in 2010 with the Class AA Erie SeaWolves in 2010. He went 6-4/3.61 in 14 starts there with 70 whiffs in 77-1/3 IP and good peripherals. It got him a quick advancement to Class AAA Toledo. He went 3-4/3.23 with the Mud Hens in nine starts, with 8 K per nine, but also 4 walks.
The Tigers called him up to the majors in late June to make his maiden voyage in the show as a replacement for Rick Porcello. Oliver made five starts, but after the first couple, it didn't go so well - his K rate dropped to seven per game and his walk rate rose to five. The call-up did cost him another shot with Team USA; he had made the roster but the Detroit gig kept him from playing.
The spotty results in the bigs weren't an entirely unexpected result for a fast-tracker. After the season, BA ranked him the #87 prospect in baseball. He won praise from his skipper, too. Tigers manager Jim Leyland viewed the rookie as a potential 15-game winner in the future, according to MLB.com. Leyland said "He had trouble commanding his fastball (but) he was here a little
He started 2011 at Toledo, and his control went completely south. Oliver was still striking out a batter per inning, but his walks remained at five per game. As a result of his command issues, he ended up with a very modest 8-12/4.71 slash in 26 starts. Oliver was recalled briefly to Detroit in May when Phil Coke was injured. It lasted for two starts, and he walked eight and K'ed five in 9-2/3 frames.
In 2012, he came to camp in the mix to be the fifth starter, but was sent back to Toledo and never appeared for the Tigers. Oliver was moved to pen in July, and made some progress. He went 1-0/3.78 ERA in nine appearances out of the bullpen for the Mud Hens after a line of 4-9/5.06 ERA in 19 starts. The southpaw finished the year with 112 strikeouts and 88 walks in 118 IP. The Tigers FO talked about him as a bullpen candidate in 2013, but that wasn't about to happen.
Oliver, 24, was traded to the Pirates for C Ramón Cabrera. Now the Bucs have to figure out what to do with him.
Baseball America described him as "a power lefty who needs to throw more strikes." His heater comes in at 92-94, though he's not sure where it's going, and his secondary arsenal is weak. His changeup is coming along, but Oliver is having trouble mastering a breaking pitch. He tossed a pretty highly considered curve in college, but lost his feel for it and has alternated between throwing the hook and the slider (he's currently in a slider phase.) Not only has that aggravated his control issues, but without a reliable breaking pitch, it hurts him against lefties, too, who can pretty well sit on his heater.
There's been some debate about whether or not to keep him as a starter, both in Detroit when he was there and we're sure now in Pittsburgh. He has a lot of upside as a rotation guy with the very big if of being able to find the dish and come up with a third pitch.
Oliver still has an option left, and we'd guess that unless he suddenly finds the light switch in the off season, he'll start in Indy as part of the rotation, joining Justin Wilson as a talented but wild lefty.
Still, it's a worthwhile gamble. The Bucs have a couple of young catchers that should be at the A level with Wyatt Mathison and Jin-De Jhang and enough organizational guys in Ali Solis, Carlos Paulino and Jacob Stallings to fill in between, so the loss of Cabrera isn't big. One day, one of those highly-drafted wash-outs the FO loves to collect like Oliver will stick against the wall.