Edward Olivares and the Pittsburgh Pirates have a chance to do something that has not been done by the organization in some time. Find significant value in an MLB level or a near MLB level hitter, without a substantial track record, that other teams undervalued to the point of practically giving away.
They signed 1B/DH Daniel Vogelbach to a one-year $1 million deal in in 2022 and after 75 games of solid offensive production, was traded to the New York Mets for set-up man Colin Holderman. Vogelbach was an All-Star in 2019 however, so it was more of a reclamation project than anything else.
Before the 2015 season, the Pirates traded for Francisco Cervelli from the New York Yankees to replace catcher Russell Martin who had left in free agency for the Toronto Blue Jays. Cervelli immediately became an impact player in Pittsburgh, finishing 2015 with a 117 wRC+ and 5.9 fWAR in 130 games.
The Pirates got the better of the Yankees, but Cervelli already had 6.1 career fWAR in 250 games for New York and the Pirates did have to give up LHP Justin Wilson in exchange. Wilson pitched well with the Yankees, and they later traded him the following offseason for Chad Green and Luis Cessa who spent seven and six seasons with the Yankees respectively.
We have to go further back to find what we’re looking for.
In 2009, the Pirates struck gold with late bloomer 1B Garrett Jones. The 28-year-old who had by that point spent parts of 11 seasons in MiLB carried a .938 OPS across 82 games after being called up from AAA Indianapolis. Jones was signed after being granted free agency after several years of being blocked from any real MLB opportunity with the Minnesota Twins by MVP winning 1B Justin Morneau.
In parts of five seasons in Pittsburgh, Jones clubbed 100 homeruns and slugged .462 which included a 2012 campaign where he hit .274/.317/.516 with 27 homeruns.
The specific comparison to Olivares is far from perfect. Oliveras already has three years of MLB service time through the same age, but the potential return on investment could be similar.
The soon to be 28-year-old outfielder entering his first year of arbitration in 2024 was traded by the Kansas City Royals to the Pirates for INF/OF Deivis Nadal to clear 40-man roster space after signing OF Hunter Renfroe and RHP Chris Stratton. The now 22-year-old Nadal hit just .212 in his second go around at low-A Bradenton in 2023.
Olivares brings an appealing, if flawed, blend of tools and skills to the table. He’s produced above average offensively each of the past two seasons, albeit over just 158 games. 58 in 2022 and 107 in 2023 amid being optioned to AAA and recalled multiple times. Those tools present reason to think he could take his offensive game to new heights.
Olivares’s good bat-to-ball skills have generated solid contact rates and low strikeouts, he was 64th percentile in terms of whiff rate and his 16.6 percent strikeout rate was in the 83rd percentile. He also hits breaking pitches exceptionally well, hitting .300 off of them in 2022 and .297 this past season to go along with slugging .584 off those pitches.
His above average raw power however hasn’t always shown up in games, but when it does show up it shows up big. Olivares was tied for the fourth longest average homerun distance in MLB (minimum 10 homeruns) with an average distance of 416ft.
The right-hander improved his slugging percentage from .410 to .452 off the back of a launch angle improvement of 5.6 degrees to an average of 12.2. Unfortunately, he won’t get any substantial help from a change in venue on that front. While PNC park certainly plays better for left-handed hitters, like Kauffman Stadium, it’s very stingy for right-handed power.
What he could benefit greatly from is better swing decisions. You can find pitch selection being listed as something holding Olivares back on scouting reports going back years.
In 2023 his swing percentage at pitches outside of the zone was 34.4, the league average is 31.9 percent. His good bat-to-ball skills keep him viable offensively, his in-zone contact rate of 89.8% was 4.4% above average, but he could unlock much more by hunting more pitches to drive.
It’s no coincidence that by far his best stretch of the season came when he was walking at a higher rate than he had all year. After being recalled from AAA Ohama on September 1 he hit .329, got on base at a .390 clip and slugged .657 with a wRC+ of 181 in 22 games over the last month of play. He hit half of his 2023 homeruns during that stretch, and walked at a 7.8 percent rate, compared to 5.2 percent the rest of the year.
His average exit velocity also benefitted from the improved plate discipline. Going from an average of 86.9 MPH, a number indicative of the poor contact that sub-par pitch selection produces, to a much better average of 89 MPH the final month. That may not seem like much but that's the difference between impacting the baseball like Tony Kemp and Kevin Newman to impacting it like Andrew McCutchen and Nick Castellanos.
He finished the year with a final line of .263/.317/.452.
There’s a good well-rounded hitter in there, the Pirates coaching staff need only find a way to consistently bring out the best in Olivares.
The Pirates under hitting coach Andy Haines have prioritized a patient approach, and player acquisitions in FA and trade have reflected that. Daniel Vogelbach, Carlos Santana, Connor Joe, Jack Suwinski and Andrew McCutchen are all notable examples of this.
What we have not yet seen is the ability to impart a more patient approach on a player who has use of it aside from what we saw briefly from Oneil Cruz this past year before he went down with a season ending fractured ankle after just nine games.
There’s another problem too, Olivares’ glove. Despite above average speed and a strong arm, he ranks among the worst OF defenders in the sport. His -7 OAA was ninth-worst among all qualified outfielders last year.
It could have been even worse had the Royals not essentially given up on the idea of him as an outfielder part-way through the season.
Past June 12, Olivares only played the field in 17 games. He should get some help by playing in PNC’s small RF, but it has to improve. Especially without much better defenders manning the other spots to make up for it. If he remains as unpalatable of a defender as he was, he might have difficulty finding playing time even if he does hit well with Andrew McCutchen presumably playing DH at least part-time.
With Connor Joe looking to spend far more time at 1B this year, OF depth beyond LF Bryan Reynolds and CF Jack Suwinski looks awfully suspect. A failure here could leave them searching for answers and resorting once again to Joshua Palacios and Ji-Hwan Bae to get starts in the OF. A more patient and consistent version of Edward Olivares could be an impactful part of the team’s 2024 success while showing the Royals that they gave up on him far too easily.
In typical Pirates fashion, they’re relying too much on a project player to be successful for the 2024 outfield picture to begin to make sense, nevertheless, Edward Olivares is one to watch this year.