The Royals Answered Their Edward Olivares Question in 2021 – Sports Illustrated

Just about everyone knows the story about the Kansas City Royals and outfielder Edward Olivares. Just to be safe, let’s rehash it one more time.

The former Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres prospect made his Royals debut in 2020 after being acquired in the Trevor Rosenthal trade. Between two teams that year, Olivares posted a .240/.267/.375 line with three home runs in 31 MLB games. His calling card as a prospect was — and still is, even as a non-prospect now — his power, as he clobbered 18 home runs for the Padres’ Double-A affiliate the year before. Heading into this season, expectations were somewhat high. Then, the up-and-down game happened.

We’re all familiar with the up-and-down game. Throughout the 2021 season, the Royals repeatedly promoted Olivares from the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers for brief stints before demoting him again. This went on all year and many reasoned that the young outfielder became more familiar with I-29 than he probably ever imagined. Did the Royals get the answers they were looking for during Olivares’ 39 games with the MLB club? Perhaps not, but that may speak for itself. 

At the plate

Before we jump into any of Olivares’ MLB stats this season, we have to recognize what he did in Triple-A. He’s too good for the Omaha Storm Chasers. In 66 games with the Royals’ highest level of minor league affiliates, the outfielder posted a .313/.397/.559 line with a scorching .956 OPS and 15 home runs. His 155 wRC+ was tied for a top-10 mark among all upper-level minor league players with at least 250 plate appearances on the year. It’s obvious that Olivares is too advanced for Triple-A pitching. 

With that said, how did that success translate to the bigs? Not very well. In 39 games with the Royals spread throughout the year, Olivares hit just .238 and his OBP of .291 simply wasn’t good enough. For a player who is touted for his raw power, his .168 ISO and .406 SLG could even stand to be higher. One of the few bright sides of Olivares’ 2021 season, outside of a few multi-game stretches in which he looked decent, was his strikeout percentage of 17.1%. That’s certainly manageable. 

Through his first 57 games with the Royals, Olivares has posted an 87 OPS+. His bat isn’t downright unplayable and his offensive upside trumps that of Michael A. Taylor, but it comes down to opportunity. Twenty-five is no longer considered very young for a player, and Olivares isn’t a prospect anymore. In a small sample size this season, he didn’t do anything to stand out nor inspire the team to make him a major part of the club moving forward. His bat remains a question mark despite his pure talent and athleticism.  

In the field

Speaking of athleticism, Olivares ranked in the 96th percentile in Baseball Savant’s sprint speed metric. On the other hand, that speed didn’t seem to translate to his defense. Baseball Savant awarded him -2 Outs Above Average in right field this season, zero in center field and -1 in left field. FanGraphs wasn’t very kind to his ability to hold down center field, either, giving him a -1.0 UZR in 24 innings. 

The eye test certainly backs up the claim that Olivares almost surely isn’t a center fielder in the future — especially at Kauffman Stadium. In right field, though, he posted a 0.9 UZR in 135 innings and in left field, he posted a 0.1 in just over 84 innings. He was a negative defender in right a year ago, so it’s hard to get a clear read on just how well (or how poorly) he profiles as an outfielder.

Again, we’re talking about very small sample sizes here. There has yet to be a complete season in which an MLB club has allowed Olivares to get into a rhythm, see his name on the lineup card every day and settle into a steady role. On-the-job experience is one of the best ways to improve, and there’s hope that he can become at least a neutral or perhaps even a slight positive defender as a corner outfielder. It’s relatively safe to say that center field may not be his forte, though. The athletic ability is there, but the instincts and angles are not. 

2022 outlook

In not answering their Olivares question this season, the Royals have effectively answered their Olivares question this season. By shifting to a Kyle Isbel-centric approach at the end of the year, extending Taylor for two additional seasons and having a multitude of players who could possibly fill in at right field in 2022, it doesn’t appear that Olivares has a starting-caliber ceiling on the team. He may become a fourth outfielder, but getting everyday at-bats and fielding opportunities likely isn’t in the cards.

Part of that is due to him not taking advantage of the (limited) opportunities given to him. When Olivares was with the Royals, he didn’t “pop.” Part of that is also due to the team not giving him an extended look, though. Both parties deserve some blame here. Regardless of how you feel about Olivares or what you think his ceiling is, it isn’t hard to see that. The Royals inherited a talented player via trade who needed to develop and despite him proving that he’d done all he could do in the minor leagues, they gave him 101 scattered at-bats after allowing him 62 the year prior. That isn’t doing your due diligence as a club but given how the situation has been handled, the Royals may have all the answers they need.

It’s possible that an Olivares breakout in spring training will open a door for him. It’s even more possible that he spends plenty of time in Omaha in 2022, hitting the cover off the ball before being promoted and stashed on the bench for days or even weeks at a time. The Royals are playing a risky game with Olivares, and it doesn’t seem like a clear winner will be determined. That’s unfortunate for both players involved.

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