The MLB lockout has been going strong this holiday season, and it is still hard to determine how long it will last and if it will affect Spring Training and/or the regular 162-game season.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Royals, and other MLB teams, from trying to promote Spring Training games, even if a full Cactus (and Grapefruit) League slate may be in doubt with the lockout still firmly in place:
Whenever the lockout ends, it will be interesting to see what the Royals will do with its current roster (and how quickly they will move as well).
Right now, it seems like Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo aren’t exactly eager to make major free agent moves, especially on the position player end (their lone free-agent acquisition has been reliever Taylor Clarke, who was non-tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks). Thus, that makes Royals fans wonder: if the Royals front office is going to stay pat with this roster for the most part, who are some players that could be bigger contributors in 2022?
I have already talked about the possibility of Kyle Isbel getting more playing time (and how he compares to a fellow Detroit Tigers outfielder). However, in this post, I wanted to take a look at two projected bench players who still have Minor League options, but are reaching a “make-or-break” points in their respective tenures in Kansas City.
Those players are third baseman Emmanuel Rivera and outfielder Edward Olivares, who both got sparing looks in the Royals infield and outfield, respectively, last season.
Now, with no major free agents expected to make their way to Kansas City in 2022 (as of now), can Rivera or Olivares make a bigger impact in the field and lineup for the Royals next year? Or will Rivera and Olivares continue to be treated as afterthoughts in the Royals organization, much like they were a year ago?
Let’s take a look at what both players offer and what their outlook could be for the Royals this coming Spring Training (whenever it should begin).
Can Rivera parlay another strong Winter League campaign into Cactus League play?
Rivera’s stock as a prospect rose in 2021 after a strong campaign in the Puerto Rican Winter League last Winter, as he hit .292 with a .866 OPS in 17 games and 73 plate appearances with Mayaguez.
This season, the Indios tabbed him as a leader of the squad at the start of the season, as they named him a captain for the team, even though he is only 25-years-old:
Early on, it seemed like the Indios’ decision to make Rivera a centerpiece of the squad would pay off, as he hit .462 with a 1.379 OPS in four games and 15 plate appearances. That included this bomb below, which Rivera hit on November 6th:
Unfortunately, after a hot start, “El Pulpo” (Rivera’s nickname) was hit on the wrist which put him on the shelf for a few weeks. While Rivera was activated from the injured list on December 26th, it will be challenging for Rivera to continue to mash, especially after such a long layoff.
That being said, if Rivera is able to continue to hit at such a scorching pace, he will certainly make an interesting case this Spring, especially with third base an “open” spot on the Royals’ active roster at this moment. It is unlikely that the Royals will have Hunter Dozier return to the position in 2022, and though he was good in a limited stint defensively at the position, Royals fans and management are probably unsure how durable Adalberto Mondesi would be at the hot corner over the course of a full 162-game season.
Of course, Rivera will have to show some improvement on his 2021 in Kansas City in Spring Training, if he wants to make a serious run as a regular or utility third baseman for the Royals in 2022.
What’s interesting about Rivera’s offensive profile is that he hit the ball hard last year.
He averaged an exit velocity of 91.1 MPH on batted balls last year, as well as a hard-hit rate of 47.7 percent, according to Savant data. Furthermore, his xwOBA of .317 was 18 points higher than his wOBA of .289, a sign that he could have been better offensively last year.
Unfortunately, Rivera just hit too many groundballs last year to be effective at the Major League level.
In 29 games and 98 plate appearances, the Puerto Rican-born infielder averaged a launch angle of 7.2 degrees, which was actually the third-lowest launch angle of Royals hitters last year (and nearly 4.8 degrees lower than league average as well). Here’s an example of Rivera hitting a ball over 100 MPH against the Mariners’ Marco Gonzales, but hitting on the ground, which results in an easy groundout to the shortstop:
Rivera’s bat will need to carry him to a regular role at the Major League level, as he doesn’t offer really plus tools in the field or on the basepaths.
According to Savant, he was three outs BELOW average in a limited stint with the Royals, and on the basepaths, his sprint speed ranked in the 59th percentile. Those aren’t exactly promising metrics that bode well in his favor, especially with the more athletic Mondesi and Bobby Witt, Jr. as possible options at third base in 2022.
Thus, for the remainder of the Winter season and in Cactus League play, Rivera will need to be able to hit more line drives and fly balls than he did in 2021. If he can see a jump in the 23.2 percent flyball rate he had last year, then it is possible that he could be a dark horse candidate for the Royals at third base next year, especially considering his natural power.
However, if he continues to mash the ball in the ground (47.8 percent groundball rate) this Spring, then it is unlikely that he’ll have a future much different than Cheslor Cuthbert or Kelvin Gutierrez, who were past Royals third base options who flashed some potential but couldn’t hit the ball in the air enough to stay on the Royals roster.
Will Olivares’ time in Kansas City run out in 2022?
The Royals picked up Olivares and Dylan Coleman for Trevor Rosenthal in what ended up being a pretty shrewd Trade Deadline deal with the San Diego Padres back in 2020. Coleman looks like he could be a key cog to the Royals bullpen in 2022, and Olivares flashed some impressive tools and production Triple-A Omaha in 2021.
In 66 games and 292 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers, Olivares hit .313 with a 155 wRC+, according to Fangraphs. Additionally, the outfielder hit 15 home runs and stole 12 bases, and impressed Omaha baseball fans with impressive bombs like this one below:
While Olivares certainly impressed in Omaha, he has struggled to get any kind of consistent playing time at the Major League level the past two seasons. The 25-year-old only played in 39 games with the Royals in 2021, and he was called up and demoted so many times a season ago that it became a running joke among Royals fans that they should rename “I-29” the “Edward Olivares Highway” since he had gone back and forth between Omaha and Kansas City so many times.
There is no question that when it comes to the outfield pecking order, Olivares is definitely behind Isbel, Andrew Benintendi, and Michael A. Taylor, who signed a two-year extension toward the end of the 2021 season in order to keep his strong defensive skills in center field at Kauffman Stadium. According to the Royals depth chart on Roster Resource, Olivares is projected to be a bench outfielder, and that could be in jeopardy, depending on what they decided to do with Dozier (moving Dozier to right field on a regular basis could spell another Omaha stint for Olivares).
A big issue is that while Olivares offers some interesting tools, he hasn’t really put it together consistently in the big leagues. In 70 games at the Major League level, he’s hit .239 and posted a career wRC+ of 80, both sub-par marks. Furthermore, he’s only accumulated a -0.2 fWAR at the Major League level, which is mostly due to his defense, which has been rated as sub-par by most metrics.
According to OAA, he’s been four outs below average for his career in the outfield, and he’s also been 3.9 defensive runs below average, according to Fangraphs’ Def runs saved. Olivares does have an intriguing speed tool, as his sprint speed ranked in the 96th percentile last season. However, he will need to show better instincts in the field and on the basepaths if he wants to be more than a backup outfielder at the Major League level both next year and beyond.
It’s easy to focus on just the bad with Olivares, especially with how underwhelming his defense and baserunning has been despite the tools being rated highly by scouts in the Minors (even back to his days with the Padres and Blue Jays). However, he did see a decrease in strikeout rate at the plate (from 24.8 percent to 17.1 percent from 2020 to 2021, respectively) as well as an increase in his BB/K ratio (0.16 to 0.26 from 2020 to 2021, respectively). Those gains demonstrate he’s recognizing pitches better in the big leagues, and he’s also producing some big hits, like this home run below against the Blue Jays’ Tim Mayza on August 1st at the Rogers Centre:
Royals fans have long clamored that if given a full chance, Olivares could provide what Taylor does, but with more hitting upside (though slightly less defensive prowess) and at a fraction of the cost. The improvement in his plate discipline data seems to confirm that those kinds of gains are being made by Olivares with more plate appearances, even if it is only a small sample.
However, with Taylor back, and Isbel finishing the 2021 season strong, it seems like Olivares’ days in Kansas City may be numbered…
It will be interesting to see how long the Royals will keep Olivares, and if they will give him a serious shot in Cactus League play, or cut ties with him sooner rather than later.
Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated