Olson came in like wildfire as a reliever in the late 1980s, mowing down everything in his path with a blazing fastball and devastating curve. But after a quick rise to the status of top echelon closer, an injury to Olson’s elbow wrecked his efficiency. The righty made ten franchise changes between 1994 and 2000 as a middle reliever, but became the odd man out in roster transactions all too often.
As the fourth pick overall in the 1988 draft, Olson received a $200,000 bonus to sign with the Baltimore Orioles. After just 24 innings in the minors that year, Olson was called up to get some work out of the pen in the bigs, and allowed four runs in 11 innings of work. In 1989, Olson became the first reliever to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award, when he set the major league rookie record with 27 saves, and struck out 90 batters in 85 innings, recording a 1.69 ERA. Olson backed up his remarkable rookie season by setting the franchise mark with 37 saves,
After his first two years with the O’s, Olson developed his skills to incorporate more finesse and control, both in his pitches and emotional maturity. Whereas in his first seasons in Baltimore, the righty would let blown saves affect his performance, he became more level-headed on the mound.
In the midst of a fine 1993 campaign — he had a 1.60 ERA and 29 saves — Olson fell victim to a torn elbow ligament in August that sidelined him for the rest of the year. When contract negotiation time rolled around in December, the Orioles opted not to take a chance on the reliever’s shaky elbow, and signed Lee Smith as their new closer.
Olson signed with the Atlanta Braves in February 1994, but started the season on the disabled list, and didn’t throw his first pitch until late May. His arm not close to what it was, Olson tossed only 14 2/3 innings that year, compiling a 9.20 ERA, and was not offered an extension in the winter by Atlanta. The Cleveland Indians took a flyer on Olson in March 1995, and assigned him to rehab in their minors. Four months later, they sold him to the Kansas City Royals, where he proved just as ineffective.
Olson signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in January 1996, declaring his elbow to be fully healed. But after he struggled in spring training, the Cards dealt him to the Detroit Tigers in April, who in turn dealt him to the Houston Astros four months later. Following the ’96 season, Olson signed with the Minnesota Twins, was released in May, caught on with the Royals again, and finished out the season there, his fifth team in two years.
Olson’s luck turned for the better in 1998, after signing with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. Though he began the season as a set-up man, closer Felix Rodriguez’s struggles paved the way for Olson to step in with his veteran moxie. Armed with a new changeup to go with his sinking fastball, he notched 30 saves in his comeback year, and had his option picked up that winter. He was also involved in one of the more unique plays of the year, when manager Buck Showalter had him intentionally walk Barry Bonds with the bases loaded and two outs. The play “worked,” as the next batter flied out to left, ending the threat.
After he blew six saves in 14 opportunities to start off 1999, the D-Backs grew wary and imported Matt Mantei from the Florida Marlins to take over closing responsibilities. Despite a brief stint on the disabled list with back spasms, Olson performed better in the setup man role. That offseason, he signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.