One area of weakness during Detroit Tigers general manager, Al Avila’s tenure has been the lack of good trades. Other than the 2015 deal that sent reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, the deals have either gone against the Tigers or were basically a wash. However, in July of 2021, Avila sent Daniel Norris to the Milwaukee Brewers for right-handed starter Reese Olson, and that trade has quickly come to look like one of his best.
There remains a good amount of relief risk in Olson, but his arsenal of pitches is among the best in the Tigers’ system. He’ll have to overcome concerns about his command, but the repertoire is so deep that it was an easy call to rank him sixth overall on our 2022 Tigers’ prospect list. With some improvement in 2022, Olson could find himself making his major league debut late this summer.
The now 22-year-old Olson is one of those rare prep prospects that signed in the later rounds of the draft. The Brewers snagged him in the 13th round back in the 2018 amateur draft out of North Hall High School in Gainesville, Georgia.
Like most prep pitchers, Olson’s progress was slow in his first full season in 2019, but he was one of those who returned from the off year in 2020 looking like a new man. Armed with four average or better pitches and a substantial velocity bump, Olson was roaring up up Brewers prospect rankings when president David Stearns turned him over to Detroit in return for Norris.
Olson spent 2021 largely at the High-A level. Across 80 innings he posted a 3.71 ERA while punching out 93 hitters to 37 walks allowed. The Tigers promoted him to Double-A Erie in late August, and he made five starts for the SeaWolves. The results were shakier for Erie, but the whiffs were still there and it’s not particularly surprising that Olson ran out of gas late in the season considering he didn’t get to pitch a game in 2020.
The turbocharged version of Olson that emerged in 2021 has a nasty repertoire with four potentially above average pitches or better. A good fastball and curveball are just the appetizer to the main course of a plus slider, plus changeup combination that could make him an outstanding starting pitcher in time. However, bouts of shaky control and a somewhat violent delivery leave question marks about Olson’s future role.
Olson’s fourseam fastball velocity was in the low 90’s back in 2019, but he emerged in 2021 touching 97 mph and sitting comfortably 93-95 mph. That extra juice, combined with good riding action, turned the heater into much more of a weapon for him, drawing above average grades. A lot of pitchers saw a velo spike coming back from the off year, but Olson sustained that bump more consistently than many.
His plus slider has nasty two-plane movement with velocity around 86 mph. That pitch is probably his more refined weapon at this point, but the changeup isn’t far behind. It features similar velocity, a bit firm in relation to his fastball, but has good deception and a lot of depth and tailing action. Olson’s aggressive delivery and late arm speed help it play up even more than the movement and velo would indicate. A prototypical high 70’s curveball rounds out the pitch mix, and while it’s merely average, Olson can steal strikes with it and use it as a change of pace to get weak contact down in the zone.
The fly in the ointment thus far, remains Olson’s size and delivery. Just six-foot, one-inch and very slender, there may be some projection left on his frame, but he is a little undersized. Teams are becoming less concerned with height as the ability of shorter pitchers to throw fourseamers on a flat plane to the top of the zone becomes recognized as a valuable trait, but there’s still going to be a little added trepidation about his durability until he’s built up to a full pro workload. However, he hasn’t had any trouble thus far, and the Tigers will try to bump him up to around 120 innings in 2022.
More crucial is the violence of Olson’s delivery. He has a fairly stiff lower half and doesn’t gain a whole lot of ground nor momentum to home plate from his legs. Instead, he slams down on a tight lead leg and rotates hard, producing a lot of late arm speed that can make him tough on hitters. However, that high effort motion doesn’t project for the stability and repeatability to command 90+ pitches an outing in a starting role.
Olson is still pretty young, and if he can improve his strength and flexibility, there may be substantial growth left in the command department. For now, we’ll have to wait and see. He still had bouts of wildness in 2021, and was at times more effectively wild than under control, mixing his three primary pitches and throwing enough strikes to force inexperienced hitters to flail at anything near the strike zone. More discerning hitters in the upper minors won’t be so overwhelmed by the raw stuff.
If Olson can command the ball more effectively and handle the increased workload this season, he’s going to get a lot more notoriety in prospect hunting circles. He’ll only turn 23 in June, so he is still pretty young. That’s in his favor, but for now, there’s a lot of potential, but with substantial relief risk remaining. Should things go that way, Olson does have the stuff to be a good late innings reliever, but will still have to locate his fastball more consistently to reach his ceiling in that role.
Projected 2022 team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
Olson only got in a handful of starts with Erie late in the 2021 season. He’ll return there this spring, looking to build on an excellent year of progress. Should he make gains in command, he’ll move very quickly and could provide starting depth for the Tigers by the summer months. If not, Double-A hitters are going to make him pay more often, and the Tigers will have to start considering a move to the bullpen. Presumably they’ll remain patient into 2023, but a shaky year with the SeaWolves could force their hand.