In 2012, Mike Olt hit .288/.398/.579 at AA, in only his second full professional season, and was called up to help the playoff-bound Rangers. He ended the season a consensus top 25 prospect in all of baseball.
In 2013, Mike Olt hit .201/.303/.381 at three AA/AAA stops, and, midseason, he was dealt to the Cubs as but one part of a four-player package for two months of Matt Garza. He ended the 2013 season off of not only all top 100 lists, but off of the Cubs’ top ten prospect lists.
How does that happen? Well, we’ve all heard the explanation by now: Olt was concussed over the Winter between those two seasons, that lead to eye and tear duct issues, and his vision was a problem for most of the 2013 season. Without proper vision, a hitter cannot hit. Thanks to a great piece by Sahadev Sharma, we got even more information on Olt’s situation – allergies exacerbated his situation, particularly in Iowa, and it took some time to sort out the best course of corrective action.
So, which Mike Olt do the Cubs have now?
If his 2013 struggles were entirely due to eye issues, and if those eye issues are now entirely under control, there’s a chance the Cubs may have maneuvered their way into getting 2012 Mike Olt. Rarely does Spring Training offer the possibility of telling you so much about a particular player, because rarely is the animating question about a player as simple as: can he see the ball again?
Games don’t start for another week, but players are in camp taking live batting practice. How did Olt’s first session go? His very first session against an actual, live pitcher this year?
“For my first at-bats in a long time, it’s the best I’ve ever felt in Spring Training,” Olt told Carrie Muskat. “I’m not even counting last year, but the year before that. I saw the ball really well.”
Players tend to feel extremely well every year in Spring Training, but this is the best first reaction we could hope for from Olt, who took those swings against one of the pitching prospects the Cubs got in that Garza trade, Neil Ramirez. You can see a little more from Olt in that Muskat piece, and it’s all as positive as it gets. We’re still a long, long way from having any kind of serious confidence that Olt is back to his 2012 self, and, even if he is, we’re still a long way from seeing whether he can translate that top-prospect self into a productive big leaguer.
But this is a very good start. Cautious – extremely cautious! – optimism is warranted at this point, particularly when you consider that Olt’s been saying his issues are behind him all offseason. As I’ve said before, the trickling effect of Olt emerging as a legitimate starting third base option at the big league level is profound …
It gives the Cubs a productive bat and glove at third base (a cost-controlled one, at that) – it allows the Cubs not to have to use two roster spots on one position – it allows the Cubs more flexibility with what they want to do with Luis Valbuena, Donnie Murphy, Emilio Bonifacio, and Darwin Barney – it allows Christian Villanueva to get all the starts at third base at AAA, if that’s what the Cubs want – it creates significant organizational redundancy at a position other teams are dying to acquire more talent – it reduces the pressure on Javier Baez and Kris Bryant to succeed quickly – it gives the Cubs more flexibility long-term with how they want to sort out when/where various prospects will emerge on the big league roster.
The Olt story this Spring is hugely important, and could be hugely positive for the organization. I think we need to be realistic in acknowledging that the odds he actually winds up breaking camp as the starting third baseman, and proceeds to put up 2 to 2.5 WAR in the first half of the season (meaning long-term decisions could definitely be made at that time) are pretty slim.
But the impact, man. It could be something. I’ll continue watching him closely.