There came a point last summer when Mike Olt had no idea what was going on with his eyes.
As if his struggles at the plate weren’t enough to dishearten him, now his body was failing him. While with the Texas Rangers, Olt went to numerous specialists without any conclusive results before finally being shut down towards the end of April.
“It was scary and frustrating,” Olt said of what turned out to be a tear duct issue that caused his eye to dry and impair his vision. “[Texas] did a great job of letting me see as many doctors as I could. I knew something was wrong and they knew something was wrong. They knew it wasn’t me. So they did everything they could. It’s crazy how it works out, it ended up being my allergies.”
Allergies? Could someone who came into the season as a top 25 prospect really have his career nearly derailed by allergies? According to Olt, that was the underlying problem, but it was a little more complicated that just allergies.
While playing in the Dominican Winter League after the 2012 regular season, Olt got hit in the head and experienced concussion-like symptoms.
“[The apparent concussion] may have tampered with my tear ducts and it wasn’t able to flush out my allergies,” Olt recently shared. “I’ve had allergies my whole life. Once we figured that out, it was something I’ll never forget. All that stress went away and it’s been all uphill since then.”
Olt, who was part of a package the Cubs received in return for Matt Garza last July, said he has a prescribed eye drop that’s geared specifically to take care of his allergies and he’s taken them once daily for the last month and a half. Olt added that, when doctors recommended his problems were possibly allergy related, he struggled to see how something seemingly so minor could cause such major problems. However, once he finally bought in and started trusting his doctors, everything changed.
“In the offseason is when we really figured out that the main cause was allergies,” Olt revealed. “Once I figured it out, it’s been smooth sailing. I talked to Theo [Epstein] after the season and he was unbelievable. He said, ‘We’re going to figure this out and by next Spring Training the only concern will be getting out there and playing baseball.’”
Olt said there was a lot of misinformation about his issues thrown around during the summer. He never underwent any surgical procedures, and, while he thought he’d found a solution during the season, he stopped taking the eye drops and the problems resurfaced.
“When I came back, I felt like myself,” Olt said. “When I stopped the eye drops, I noticed it was coming back and I got frustrated. [After being traded], I went to Iowa and it was a tough area for me [allergy-wise] and I just wasn’t keeping my eyes lubricated.”
Olt confirmed that at one point he was using some stronger drops that the doctors recommended he stop using because it was only a temporary solution.
“At the time I’d lost track of applying the eye drops in general,” Olt said. “The thing I have now, it’s really treatable with eye drops. As long as I can keep my eye lubricated, I’ll be just fine. Basically everything that’s happened and trying to figure out what’s caused everything, it’s all irrelevant, as long as I keep my eyes lubricated, I’m back to my old self.”
After posting a .288/.398/.579 line with a 24% strikeout rate at double-A Frisco in 2012, Olt’s numbers dipped dramatically in 2013. Between three leagues and two levels, Olt delivered a .684 OPS with an alarming 30.6% k-rate last season. But Olt was adamant that it wasn’t a deterioration of skills that caused his 2013 woes. It was all the eye issue.
“You don’t just forget how to hit. I’ll be back to my old self,” Olt reiterated. “I’m excited for the challenge and I’m excited to be with the Cubs.”
And the Cubs are no doubt excited to have Olt, especially if he can bounce back to his top prospect form. Someone who was nearly untradeable in previous talks, had suddenly become an afterthought to C.J. Edwards in the Garza trade. At the moment, the front office is taking a cautious approach with Olt, not putting too much pressure on him to instantly perform at his previous level while remaining hopeful that his eye problems are truly a thing of the past and that they were the only reason for his struggles.
Rick Renteria and the front office point to a platoon of Donnie Murphy and Luis Valbuena being perfectly acceptable at third (and it very well may be). But, make no mistake, they’d be overjoyed if Olt came into Spring Training with his 2012 swagger and dominated March, firmly staking his claim to the third base spot for the immediate future.
But Olt isn’t heading into camp with any unrealistic expectations.
“I’m here just to go out there, and if I can help the Cubs and perform at that level, that’s obviously my goal,” Olt said. “Theo and everyone have a plan, and they’re not just going to give jobs to anyone. So it’s going to be a lot of hard work and we’ll see what happens. I have a better shot than if I were with Texas [with Adrian Beltre firmly entrenched at the hot corner]. But it’s still going to be a really hard job to win.”
What could Olt look like at the Major League level if he’s going right? Make no mistake, there will still be a lot of strikeouts from Olt, but think more of a 25% rate, rather than 35% (the Major League average last year was 19.9%, and it’s on an upward trend as strikeouts are at an all-time high in baseball) and an average that hovers in the .250-.260 area. But that’s perfectly acceptable when you consider that he can bring 25-plus homer potential, a respectable on-base percentage and average-to-plus defense at third. Add that all up and it’s a borderline all-star and another valuable asset added to an offense that is so desperate for a jolt. Obviously, the downside is quite different. Think Brett Jackson in 2012 without the benefit of plus base-running and up-the-middle defense.
If Olt can somehow revert to his old form, the Cubs could find themselves in an enviable situation. First of all, it could move the Valbuena-Murphy platoon off third and possibly supplanting Darwin Barney at second (while the defense would likely suffer a bit, the upgrade in offense would be a welcome addition to a team that was second to last in runs per game, OBP and OPS+ in the NL). Secondly, there would be a tremendous amount of depth at third base, with defensive-whiz Christian Villanueva knocking on the door at Iowa and all-world talent Kris Bryant hopefully forcing himself into the conversation come mid-summer. The Cubs would have an abundance of talent at one position.
While it would be a hard decision to make with regards to whom to move, if all are performing well, it’s a decision the Cubs would be happy to make. The point of accumulating a surplus of assets is to eventually have to make these hard decisions, hopefully leading to shoring up other areas of need.
Of course, these things aren’t on Olt’s mind; he’s rightfully fixated on one goal.
“The only thing I’m trying to focus on is baseball,” Olt said. “The trade rumors from the last couple years, it’s all irrelevant. As long as I can just do my job, that’s what helps me sleep at night. Everything else will just fall into place.”
Photo courtesy Dylan Heuer