A few days before Jared Oliva was named to the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game, he stated that the opportunity would be “the cherry on top” to his experience in the desert.
Let’s just take a step back to analyze his 2019 resume: First Double-A season. Check. All-League performer. Check. Arizona Fall League. Check. AFL Fall Star. Check.
A Minor League Gold Glove Award should be coming his way, too.
His primary goal for the Fall League has been to propel himself from Double-A Jared Oliva to Big League Jared Oliva. That approach has made him one of the standouts in the AFL.
Heading into Saturday’s Fall Stars Game, Oliva leads the AFL with eight doubles and seven steals while he ranks second in runs scored (12), third in total hits (19) and tied for fifth in walks (10). His .365/.476/.558 slash line ranks ninth across the board.
Fans in Altoona know Oliva can hit. He led the 2019 Curve in hits, runs, batting average, triples and stolen bases. What Curve followers may not be used to seeing Oliva do is something he’s done regularly in the AFL: playing the corner outfield positions. He has played just three games in center field this fall. It is not that someone is blocking his playing time in center but he employed a forward-thinking approach to help the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Defensively, I told Turg (Peoria manager Dave Turgeon) that I want to work at all three outfield spots,” Oliva said early in October. “If I can help the team at the Major League level, I believe versatility is huge for me by being able to play all three outfield spots and be comfortable doing it.”
After playing just one game out of center field with Altoona during the regular season, Oliva could mirror Bryan Reynolds’ versatility if/when his name is called to Pittsburgh. Reynolds played all three outfield spots regularly for the Pirates during his 2019 rookie campaign that was part of him staying in the lineup (his .314/.377/.503 slash line didn’t hurt either).
Defensively, he’s one of the most reliable outfielders in the game. In three seasons and 268 games, 2,287 innings and 638 total chances in the outfield, Oliva has committed one error. However, the big test for every player trying to break into and remaining in the Majors (i.e. Bryan Reynolds) is at the plate.
“When it comes to hitting, getting my body consistently in position to do damage by driving the ball,” Oliva said. “That was something that I worked on with [John] Nunnally. We definitely made some huge strides and that is something I want to build off of.
“There have been some tweaks and changes along the way, too. You gather some bits and pieces and mesh them all together. I really feel it’s taken off. I’ve been driving the ball the opposite way and pull-side gap. I look forward to building off of that and continue to steal bases and make an impact in every part of the game. That’s my goal.”
Two days after the interview for this piece, Oliva cemented his Fall Stars candidacy when he nearly hit for the cycle. He went 4-for-5 and missed the cycle by a home run. Actually, he missed the cycle by about a foot. His second double of that game hit halfway up the center field wall.
Although Oliva has been a standout in the AFL, he is always one to praise others around him. He had plenty of gleaming reviews for his Fall League manager, Dave Turgeon, who is the Pirates Coordinator of Instruction and a nine-year member of the organization.
“Each day we go up to the yard, there’s a purpose involved,” said Oliva. “I think Turgeon does a good job of reminding all the guys why we’re here. We each made individual goals, what we wanted to do, and he put them up in the locker room for everybody to see. It’s cool to have Turg keeping that “Pirate Identity” with our team and making sure we all accomplish our goals.”
Each AFL roster is made up of prospects from five MLB organizations. Turgeon, Oliva and the rest of the Pirates have joined forces with the Astros, Mariners, Red Sox and Padres.
“It’s a unique thing being around four or five different organizations,” said Oliva, “hearing what they value, what they have to say and what they’re working on. Everyone collaborates with each other to help one another out which is really cool.”
Teaming up with other systems has been one of Oliva’s biggest delights in the experience, which has reunited him with fellow Fall Star and one of his teammates at the University of Arizona, J.J. Matijevic. Matijevic, a first baseman in the Astros system, is a West Pa. product that attended Norwin High School in North Huntingdon before he went to Arizona.
Playing in the state of Arizona again has allowed Oliva’s family and friends to catch a glimpse of him more frequently than during the regular season.
“It’s almost like a big reunion,” said Oliva. “With all the Pirates affiliates being out east, not a lot of friends have been able to see me play lately.”
The Fall Stars Game on Saturday marks two weeks remaining on the AFL season that Cole Tucker called “a six-week Futures Game”. Saturday, October 26 is the AFL Championship Game, where Oliva will be heading home to California. It will be a much shorter excursion from Phoenix than the two-day trek from Altoona that he made after Labor Day. That’s when his offseason will officially begin.
Oliva plans on spending the holidays around his family and friends. He is also planning a trip to the Dominican Republic similar to his visit to Puerto Rico a year ago. By January, the preparation for 2020 will ramp up as he gets his body ready for baseball once again.
The games are important. The reps against the next stars of the game are important. But baseball players are built in the offseason, a mindset that Oliva is ready to tackle.
“Every offseason is big but I realize that this is a severely important offseason for my career. After playing the season in Double-A and here in the Fall League, that puts me in a good position make a lasting impression for when spring training rolls around.”
The 2019 Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game is available to watch online on MLB.com/AFL. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, October 12.