To say that Edward Olivares was a “running joke” in 2021 would be putting it lightly.
Olivares was optioned up and down between Omaha and Kansas City so much last season that it became a running joke among Royals fans that I-29 between the two cities should be renamed the “Edward Olivares Highway”.
Going into Spring Training this year, it appears that Olivares’ future for 2022 is a bit of a hazy one.
With Bobby Witt, Jr. generating hype as being the Royals’ possible Opening Day third baseman, and with Whit Merrifield making a move to right field so far in Cactus League play, it seems like Olivares’ opportunity to get playing time in the Royals outfield, let alone make the Royals roster, may be slim.
Add in Kyle Isbel into the mix, who finished 2021 strong after a rough start at the beginning of the season, and Royals fans began to wonder this:
Would Olivares be possibly traded or even designated for assignment by the end of Spring Training, especially with a move needed to clear space on the 40-man roster for Witt?
And yet, despite all the odds being against the former Blue Jay international signee, Olivares has made his case so far in Cactus League play that he may not just deserve a spot on the Opening Day roster, but perhaps some playing time as well in 2022.
And that puts the Royals in a difficult position to begin this upcoming season.
What Olivares has been doing so far this season has been nothing short of spectacular. Even though he didn’t play today against the Cincinnati Reds, here’s a look at the line Olivares has produced in Cactus League play, going into today’s contest:
In nearly every aspect of the game this Spring, Olivares has demonstrated to the Royals the potential he has if given the opportunity to flourish in the lineup every day.
In addition to showcasing some surprising speed and a strong ability to make contact at the plate (which he has shown before over the past couple of seasons), he also has demonstrated more power, which can be seen in this home run stroke below:
In his two seasons with the Royals, Olivares has accumulated 176 plate appearances over 57 games and has posted a triple slash of .252/.291/.411 with an OPS of .702, according to Baseball-Reference. Granted, his free-swinging approach (career 0.20 BB/K ratio) isn’t necessarily what the Royals need, especially with free-swingers such as Salvador Perez, Adalberto Mondesi, and Michael A. Taylor already in the lineup.
However, Olivares seems to be improving as he gets more at-bats at the Major League level, and that is demonstrated in the improvements in his Statcast data from a year ago.
From 2020 to 2021, the 26-year-old saw improvements in average exit velocity on batted balls (4.6 MPH), barrel rate (0.4 percent), and hard-hit rate (3.3 percent). Additionally, he saw his K rate decline by 7.7 percent from 2020 to 2021, while seeing a slight improvement in walk rate (0.5 percent). Those signs confirm that Olivares was recognizing pitches better in 2021 in comparison to his rookie year during the shortened 2020 season.
Granted, while those improvements were encouraging, there are still question marks about how his power will mature over the course of his career.
His average launch angle of 7.9 degrees is nearly four degrees below league average and his high groundball rate (47.6 percent) only confirms that. While Olivares isn’t quite the groundball machine that Kelvin Gutierrez was in his time in Kansas City, he could follow a similar fate in 2022, should he not be able to elevate the ball better this Spring and at the start of this season.
In addition, there will need to be some gains in his defense this Spring if Olivares wants to cement his spot as at least a backup outfielder in Kansas City.
Kauffman Stadium’s outfield grounds are some of the most spacious in Major League Baseball. And after plotting out Jorge Soler in right field way too much in 2021, the Royals need at least average defensive production at that position, especially if they want to maximize the defensive value of Taylor in centerfield and Andrew Benintendi in left.
Unfortunately, one could not say Olivares was average by any means the past couple of years, especially when one takes a look at his defensive Outs Above Average data, via Baseball Savant:
Here’s an example of Olivares’ questionable defense as well in an August 29th game against the Seattle Mariners where he misjudged a line drive from Kyle Seager:
A strong offensive Cactus League will be valued by the Royals, no question about it. The Royals need bats, especially ones who can come off the bench and give instant production over short periods of time.
That being said, Olivares’ defense this Spring will also be crucial in determining his future with the Royals in 2022 and beyond.
According to Roster Resource’s Royals Depth Chart, Olivares is expected to make the 28-man roster on Opening Day (there are an extra two spots due to MLB allowing expanded rosters in the first month). In addition to Olivares, Roster Resource also expects Isbel and Emmanuel Rivera to make the roster as bench players, which wouldn’t be surprising considering Isbel’s strong September in Kansas City last season, and Rivera’s strong start so far in Cactus League play.
That being said, Olivares does have a Minor League option remaining, and it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see the Royals have him start in Omaha because…
Well, I’m finding a lack of reasons “why” now, honestly.
In all honesty, if the Royals are not going to use him because they do not see him as a future player, then they should simply trade him and see if they could get some kind of bullpen asset or perhaps another high-level prospect, especially at centerfield who may be defensive-focused. The Royals lack center field options in the upper minors, and it seems obvious that the Royals do not believe that Olivares could play the position full time at Kauffman Stadium in the near future.
In many ways, Olivares’ story feels a lot like Brett Phillips and Brian Goodwin, who were talented outfielders who the Royals acquired from other organizations, but failed to garner a lot of faith with the organization in one way or the other.
While Phillips and Goodwin didn’t quite turn out to be full-time regular players after they left Kansas City, they have found niche roles off the bench for various clubs over the past couple of years. Goodwin producing some solid moments with the Angels in 2019 and the White Sox in 2021, and Phillips had a World Series moment in 2020 against the Dodgers:
It would be a shame to see the Royals make the same mistake three times, with the third example being Olivares.
If Olivares continues to rake this Spring, he’ll make a case for his spot on the Opening Day roster. And if he has that spot, he will have the opportunity to contribute…
And maybe Olivares will have a special kind of moment in Kansas City, much like Phillips had in Tampa Bay back in 2020.
Hey, as a Royals fan, we can wish.
Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports