13. Helcris Olivarez (366 points, 20 ballots)
Helcris Olivarez possesses one of the higher ceilings among Rockies pitching prospects. In fact, the 21-year-old 6’3”, 200-pound lefty was protected on the 40-man roster after excelling in fall instructs in 2020 despite never pitching above rookie ball at that point. Olivarez, who signed back in 2016 for $65k, boasts a bat-missing repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball from the left side and an above-average curve, as well as his smooth delivery.
Coming off that 40-man roster appointment, Olivarez was assigned straight to High-A Spokane in 2021, where he was 3.2 years younger than league average. Olivarez struggled against that advanced competition, averaging fewer than five innings per start (99 2⁄3 IP in 22 appearances, 21 of them starts). That written, Olivarez did last at least six innings in three of his final five appearances, all of which were quality starts. In 2021, Olivarez had a 6.05 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and 6.1 BB/9 rate (hitting 21 batters as well), though his 10.1 K/9 rate was excellent and his 5.50 xFIP indicated a little unluckiness.
It’s easy to see that line and be discouraged given the glowing reports Olivarez has gotten above and from national scouts. It’s important to remember that he pitched at age 20 for most of the season in High-A, a very aggressive assignment for his age, and struck out more than a batter per inning. Then again, Olivarez has already burned through his first minor league option and will need to show he can be a big league contributor as soon as next year and be able to stick there in 2024 to avoid losing his 40 man spot.
To that end, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs actually used Olivarez to comment on how 40 man roster timelines impact prospect grades. The whole thing is worth reading (as it also covers fellow PuRP Jordy Vargas), but in summation: Olivarez has the stuff and profile when compared to similarly aged prospects for Longenhagen to put him at a 45 Future Value designation. Because of the Rule 5 timeline, though, and the necessary compression to development that provides, Olivarez may be less likely to reach his actualized form before he exhausts his major league options, so he’s more likely to end up in the bullpen at the end of his option years to see if he can stick on the roster. As a result, Longenhagen drops him down to a 40 FV prospect.
Here’s some video of Olivarez from extended spring training in 2019 courtesy of FanGraphs, including some slo-mo looks at his delivery:
In the scouting report accompanying the above video and the aforementioned 40 man roster timeline story, FanGraphs ranked Olivarez 19th in the system with a 40 Future Value grade as a relief pitcher (highlighted by a 70 future grade on the fastball) in January:
Olivarez has yet to develop cogent strike-throwing ability even though his silky smooth mechanics bear some resemblance to Cole Hamels‘, especially the way his rear leg finishes. Olivarez does have tremendous stuff for a 21-year-old. He already sits 96 mph, maintains his arm speed while throwing his changeup, and flashes a plus curveball. There’s arguably too much velocity separation between the heater and curveball for the latter to be effective right now (on average, there’s a 20 mph difference), but it has bat-missing depth and shape on occasion. Olivarez began throwing more changeups than breaking balls in 2021, and while he sells it as a fastball out of the hand, he doesn’t have great feel for location right now. Colorado has already used one of his option years, and it’s unlikely that Olivarez will suddenly look ready for a big league roster spot in 2022, which means they’ll likely use another. A looming lack of roster flexibility makes it more likely he winds up in the bullpen. Many things — holding the velo deep into games, mechanical consistency, a sharper curveball, a much better changeup — need to progress for Olivarez to actualize what appears to be massive potential when you consider his arm strength, frame, and proclivity for spin.
There’s nothing wrong with the 6-foot-3 southpaw’s stuff. His fastball easily sits in the mid-90s and he couples it with a power curve that might be a plus out pitch in time. He throws his changeup with good arm speed, and it should be a solid third pitch for him. All of his pitches come from a strong, physical frame.
As Olivarez grew into that frame quickly, he developed a delivery that was tough to repeat and he would cross over one time and fly open the next. He spent last fall at instructs not pitching in any games, but working on his delivery, his timing and his direction to the plate. If he can harness that and his arm slot, he has the chance to head back in the right direction.
John Trupin of Baseball Prospectus highlighted Olivarez in a profile back in early June 2021:
The 6-foot-3 lefty has a sturdy lower half and a solid frame, but his arm action is long and his low three-quarters release flew open frequently against lefties and righties alike in my recent look. His delivery overall seemed athletic and repeatable, so I suspect a tightening of his arm action could yield better command. But by consistently falling behind in counts, Olivarez spent much of the game setting up hitters in fastball counts. The fastball was a solid four-seam, sitting 95-96 and topping 97 multiple times on the broadcast. I saw several above-average hard changeups at 89-91, as the Rockies are wont to encourage in their arms, but the pitch’s location was erratic. The best of the cambios got several inches of sharp drop, and was his most effective swing-and-miss pitch by a significant margin. I did not see Olivarez hit his target with his curveball until the fourth inning; the high-70s offering did not seem like a competitive pitch. It had get-me-over traits but lacked the consistency of location to serve that purpose.
Despite the shaky results so far this year, Olivarez has what many lefties struggle with already: a toolkit for making righties swing and miss. As long as his command remains this poor, however, it’s moot. Compounding the issue, without a slider or other deceptive breaking ball, he’s disappointingly ill-suited to shutting down left-handed batters. With all that in mind, at just 20-years-old, there’s still plenty of time for one of the youngest pitchers in High-A to add to his arsenal and turn some heads.
Olivarez clearly has the stuff to excite scouts and to pitch in the front half of a rotation. His command struggles in High-A have slowed the future ace talk, but I suspect Olivarez will be in MLB before his three option years are up (by the end of 2023) so the Rockies can figure out if he can get big league hitters out. Indeed, Olivarez was recently assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque, just a step away from the Show. The mid to front of rotation profile presented by Olivarez, despite the command issues, was enough for me to rank him 14th on my personal list with a 40+ FV grade.