Just 2 years ago, Mike Olt was the 2nd best prospect in what was perhaps the game's strongest farm system. Baseball America had him as the 22nd best prospect in all of baseball. That was behind only Javier Baez among Cubs prospects. He was basically about as untouchable as Kris Bryant is today.
Then mysterious vision issues led to a horrendous 2013 season. With the Rangers having Adrian Beltre at 3B and numerous infield prospects on the way, Olt suddenly became expendable enough to be included as part of a 4 player package for 2 months of Matt Garza. In fact, at the time many Cubs fans were most excited about the pitching they received. They had just drafted a 3B 2nd overall in Bryant and many believe that Baez was/is a candidate to be the 3B of the future. There is also depth in the system with Christian Villanueva and Jeimer Candelario. What's more, Olt's performance did not improve upon joining the Cubs. It actually got worse. Obviously this was not a case that a simple change of scenery could solve.
However, it turns out the solution may be even easier than that. Olt's issues have seemingly stemmed, at least in part, to allergy issues that affected his vision. The Cubs believe they have the right medication now and Olt is slowly beginning to make people believe he can be the player many thought he was just last spring.
Here is what Baseball America said about him just over a year ago in February of 2013,
With plus raw power and strong hitting approach, Olt is a threat to go deep anytime he steps to the plate. He works deep counts and piles up both walks and strikeouts, so his average will settle in the .260-.270 range...Scouts say Olt is a joy to watch defensively, owing to his agility and ability to make throws from any angle... A potential all-star, he could open 2013 in the big league lineup or get a couple of months in Triple-A.
If Olt is healthy, we can almost apply that description to the upcoming 2014 season. Does Olt get a do-over?
Even if he does, it doesn't guarantee him a job. We have to remember the Cubs got surprisingly good production from a 3-headed platoon monster at 3B last year. Together they managed a respectable .320 OBP with 31 HRs, a .770 OPS, and above average defense overall. That said, the Cubs got 20 HRs from Donnie Murphy and Cody Ransom. It's a lot to expect for that to happen again. It seems far-fetched to me that the Cubs can expect a repeat of that kind of performance from the short side of a platoon.
So perhaps Olt will get a legit shot to win that 3B job and if not, he'll be on speed dial at Iowa. There are no real concerns here about cost-control. Olt only has 33 MLB at-bats and is 25. He'll turn 26 in August. He still has his 6 years of cost control and won't be arb eligible until 2017. That means he'll be 33 when he becomes a free agent and 29 when he will file for his first arbitration. There really is no reason to hold him back from a financial standpoint if he's ready.
He certainly seems to be seeing the ball well. He has impressed the Cubs in practice and then yesterday hit an absolute bomb way beyond the LF fence. Back in November, we wondered whether Olt may be a key piece for the Cubs rebuilding process in 2014 in part due to some optimistic projections from Bill James that sees him as outproducing Luis Valbuena in 2014. Olt seems on the verge of providing us with an answer this spring.
If anything does hold Olt back, it's the sore shoulder that has prevented him from playing 3B this spring. Olt can play 1B at Iowa while he recovers, a luxury he wouldn't have on the MLB team with Anthony Rizzo on the roster.
If Olt is able to win and retain the Cubs 3B job, it begins to change the complexion of the team for both past and present. It pushes Valbuena to a utility role and Donnie Murphy into a battle for a utility infielder spot with Emilio Bonafacio, Logan Watkins, and Ryan Roberts. Additionally, Valbuena becomes a short term MLB ready substitute for incumbent 2B Darwin Barney should Barney struggle again.
Deeper in the system, success by Olt puts top prospect Baez in a position where he'll almost certainly play a middle infield position, which is what he prefers. With Castro at SS, Baez could move to 2B and give the Cubs an infield that should be well above average on both offense and defense. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant has the bat to play a corner position in the OF. With Castillo catching and Almora looking about as sure a bet as any prospect in the Cubs system right now, the Cubs could have 8 long term position players in place by sometime next season.
But the first domino is Olt and it appears he just may be the guy to fall and start the chain of events that lead the Cubs into a new and exciting era of baseball.
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