With the World Series over, and teams already starting to decline player options (with the Cardinals making major news by declining options to catcher Yadier Molina and second baseman Kolten Wong), the topic of “free agency” is already rampant among many Major League Baseball fans. This is especially true among Royals nation, as Dayton Moore’s comments about “wanting to compete” next season may signal that the Royals may be more aggressive in the free agent market than years past. With Alex Gordon retiring, the outfield situation will be one worth watching, as there should be two open spots up for the taking in 2021 in the wake of Gordo’s retirement.
As of now, it seems likely that Franchy Cordero will get a serious look at one of the open outfield positions, especially after a strong finish to the 2020 season. Furthermore, it’s not out of the question to think that the Royals could pursue a free agent outfielder, as there are some interesting candidates available this off-season who could fit with the Royals on 1 to 2-year contracts. While the Royals may be looking long-term with Khalil Lee, Kyle Isbel, Seuly Matias, and perhaps even Erick Pena, the Royals’ main outfield prospects are a couple of years away from making an impact at the Major League level (at the earliest). Thus, it may make some sense for the Royals to find a veteran free agent outfielder to hold it down in center or left for a couple of seasons, with the idea that they left a better team for those prospects to join in 2023 and beyond.
However, while the gut instinct for the Royals may be to sign a free agent outfielder this Winter, the Royals may have a productive outfielder on their 40-man roster who could fit the bill, in addition to Cordero.
That player could be Edward Olivares, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres shortly before the Trade Deadline for Trevor Rosenthal.
Olivares was rated as the 20th best prospect in a loaded Padres system when he was acquired by the Royals. Originally a Blue Jay prospect, Olivares came over to San Diego in 2018 in a deal that involved Teoscar Hernandez, and posted a strong season in 2019 in the Texas League with a .283/.349/.453 slash as well as 18 HRs and 35 SBs in 127 games and 551 plate appearances. In 2020, Olivares made the Padres active roster once play resumed at the end of July, but he struggled to produce in limited playing time in San Diego, as he posted a .226 wOBA and 39 wRC+ in 13 games and 36 plate appearances. However, despite his lackluster rookie debut as a Padre, Moore remained high about Olivares after the trade:
“We were looking for someone who fit our style of play,” Moore said. “When we look at the projection of our outfield in the future, we felt we needed a right-handed bat, if we could possibly execute something like that. We were able to get a player that we’d seen a lot of. He was a Texas League All-Star last year. [First base coach] Rusty Kuntz had seen him multiple times. Actually, when San Diego initially inquired about Trevor … Rusty said, ‘If you can get this guy, Olivares, that would be great.'”“Royals land outfielder Olivares from Padres” by Joe Bliss; MiLB.com
Olivares made good on the Royals’ confidence in him, as he posted much better numbers in Kansas City. After posting a slash of .176/.222/.294 with the Padres, Olivares posted a slash of .274/.292/.419 in 18 games and 65 plate appearances, and also posted a wOBA of .302 and a wRC+ of 88. While those numbers weren’t earth-shattering by any means, he at least showed a decent skill set and some intriguing potential both at the plate and in the outfield over his 18-game stint as a Royal.
The Royals let Olivares swing away a lot more after coming to the Midwest from San Diego, and that seemed to be a factor in his improvement at the plate in Kansas City. His swing rate increased from 41.4 percent in San Diego to 55.6 percent in Kansas City, and consequently, his swinging strike rate also increased from 9.2 percent to 12.5 percent, according to Fangraphs. However, he also increased his contact rate from 76.7 to 77.6 percent, which shows that while he became more of a “hacker” as a Royal (not surprising considering their history of employing many “hackers” in their lineup since 2018), it actually worked better for him at the plate.
Furthermore, though his walk rate lowered (from 5.6 to 3.1 percent), his K rate dramatically regressed (38.9 to 16.9) and Olivares posted a slightly better BB/K ratio as a result (0.14 in SD to 0.18 in KC). It will be interesting to see if Olivares could somehow raise his walk rate next year, while keeping his strikeout rate stable. If he is able to improve his plate discipline substantially, then it’s possible that Olivares could be even more productive at the plate in 2021.
Defensively, Olivares could use some seasoning and that shows in his metrics from his rookie campaign. Remember, Olivares is only 24-years-old and played in Double-A in 2019. To think he would come up and be a Gold Glover immediately is wishful thinking. However, Olivares did show some progress in Kansas City. After posting a -2 OAA (outs above average) overall in SD, he posted a +1 OAA in left field with the Royals, according to Statcast data. This shows that Royals coaching did have an effect, even it was only a limited sample. That being said, Olivares does have elite speed, as his sprint score ranked in the 95th percentile in 2020, according to Statcast data. And thus, it is plausible that with some coaching from Kuntz this Spring Training, not only could Olivares utilize that speed to be a 20+ stolen base threat, but he could also use it to help him defensively in the outfield, whether it is in center or left.
Cordero has a higher prospect pedigree and more power potential than Olivares, and that is why it seems like Cordero seems to be a surer bet to start in the outfield in Kansas City in 2021. Furthermore, Olivares is two years younger than Cordero, so there is less pressure to start Olivares in the Royals outfield as well (especially considering that Olivares has two Minor League options remaining). With a Minor League season hopefully coming back in 2021, the Royals could have Olivares start the year in Triple-A Omaha to allow him not only develop his hitting and plate discipline, but also his defense in the outfield, with the hope that he can be more ready to go mid-year in 2021 than he was in 2020 with the Padres.
Furthermore, the Royals most likely will be enticed by many available outfielder free agents who could provide a competitive boost to this Royals lineup in 2021. Michael Brantley (1.3 WAR), Jackie Bradley, Jr. (1.4 WAR), and Jurickson Profar (1.3 WAR), are potential targets who could not only fill a Royals OF position, but could also provide some pop and plate discipline at the dish as well. Additionally, with many teams losing massive amounts of money this year, the Royals could be bigger players for those targets, as teams may be less likely to offer long-term deals, which in turn would help the Royals compete in the free agent market. The Royals have more payroll flexibility going into 2021 with Gordon and Ian Kennedy’s contracts coming off the books. Thus, if they can offer any of those three a two-year or maybe three-year deal, (in the 10-12 per year range), that may be enough to convince them to make their way to the City of the Fountains this Winter.
However, while Brantley, Bradley, Jr., and Profar make sense, Royals fans should not discount Olivares and what he may be able to do as a starting outfielder for the Royals in 2021. According to his Player Similarity chart on Baseball Savant, he compared favorably to Cameron Maybin (0.73), as well as Jonathan Schoop, Victor Reyes, Jean Segura, Lewis Brinson, and Eduardo Escobar (0.72). While all those players have struggled with consistency over their careers, they all have been regular starting players for periods of times, and they have showed either 20+ homer or 20+ stolen base production or flashes in their MLB careers. If Olivares can live up to those comparisons, especially during his age-25 season, then it is possible that Olivares could be an option in the Royals outfield for not just 2021, but perhaps long-term as well.
Moore and manager Mike Matheny will probably make a decision on Olivares in Spring Training, for it may be too early to simply hand him a starting job (and honestly, that’s the right thing to do for a player his age). However, while Royals fans may think a free agent may be the answer to fill one of the two Royals outfield gaps, they should not be sleeping on Olivares and his potential. The Royals made a mistake in 2019 by going with a free agent Billy Hamilton for the starting CF job over Brian Goodwin, who was acquired mid-season in 2018, much like Olivares in 2020. Goodwin proceeded to post a 109 wRC+ in 136 games and 458 plate appearances with the Angels, while Hamilton posted a 44 wRC+ in 93 games and 305 plate appearances with the Royals (he ended up getting released later in the year).
Olivares is faster, younger, and strikes out much less than Goodwin. In addition, he has the potential to be a much better defensive player than Goodwin as well (not to mention less injury-prone). And thus, if the Royals front office made a mistake with Goodwin, they could be making an even bigger error if they overlook Olivares when they report to camp in Surprise.
Thus, it will be interesting to see how Moore and Matheny will handle Olivares this Spring, and if he will be given the opportunity to earn either the starting left or center field job for 2021.
Because if he is given a serious opportunity in Spring Training, then it is plausible that Olivares will not only surprise Moore, Matheny and the entire Royals front office and coaching staff…
But it’s possible that he could surprise a lot of Royals fans as well, especially if he steps on the field as part of the starting lineup on Opening Day in 2021.