Is Mike Olt the Long Term Answer at Third?
The 2014 season for the Cubs wasn’t going to be a year where the postseason was going to be reached. Everyone knew that going in to the year. The big project this year, for the big league club, was the development of the younger players who regressed last season. The names that come up when this topic is discussed are Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. However, there is one guy who had a terrible year in the minors in 2013 that got his chance to contribute to the big league roster this season, and that is Mike Olt.
The 25 year old third baseman started last season in AAA with Round Rock in the Texas Rangers organization. At the trade deadline, Olt and three other prospects were traded to the Cubs for pitcher Matt Garza. After being traded to the Cubs, he continued to struggle in AAA Iowa. Between the two teams, he hit .201 with a .684 OPS and a strikeout rate of 31%. In a winter league game before the start of the 2013 season, he was hit in the head by a pitch, and he continued to have head problems throughout the season. In the spring of 2014, the third baseman got a chance.
Olt made the team out of spring training and started at third on Opening Day in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the season did not start out as good as many of us had hoped. He hit just .164 with an OPS of .589 and 4 home runs in 61 plate appearances in March and April while splitting time with Luis Valbuena at third. Also, Olt had a strikeout rate of 35% and a walk rate of 5%. He was struggling at the plate and trying to get regular playing time at third base.
It has come full circle for the third baseman recently. Olt has started 8 and played in all but one of the Cubs’ 12 games in May, including starting 6 out of the last 7. All of his stats are up after this month, including his average (.233), OBP (.361), slugging percentage (.633), and OPS (.994). Also, Olt is hitting the ball out of the ballpark of late. In those 12 games, he has hit 4 home runs to give him 8 total on the year. Another good sign is that his strikeout rate is down lately to 25%, walk rate is up to 8% for the season, and OPS+ is just above average at 101.
As Olt gets more playing time and officially takes over the everyday third base job, his numbers will continue to grow. His progress is arguably just as important as Rizzo’s and Castro’s. If Olt can take a stranglehold on the third base job, the future of the Cubs looks a lot clearer. There are a few candidates to take over the third base job, but Olt can take over permanently with a solid year in 2014.
One of these contenders for the third base job is the first round pick last year, the highly touted Kris Bryant. The bat is not an issue for Bryant; he will hit in the majors, but the glove can be a little shaky at times. Olt is not a gold glove defender at third, but he can be an above average defender. Bryant projects better as a corner outfielder with his size. Another candidate is Christian Villanueva, the AAA third baseman now. Villanueva’s glove has been credited as the best defender in the Cubs system. There are questions of how his bat will translate to the big leagues. Olt’s bat will be more value than Villanueva’s glove in the long run.
How nice would it be going into 2015 knowing who will be your third baseman for the next 6 years? Olt would be a great piece to have in the fold going forward. He is under team control through the 2019 season, which gives the Cubs flexibility going forward. It is not out of the question that Olt could secure NL Rookie of the Year honors. The Cubs third baseman is leading all NL rookies in home runs, RBI’s, slugging percentage, and OPS. If Olt can get his average and on base percentage up, he very well can be a top candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. To go along with those rookie stats, Olt is in the top 10 in the NL in home runs with eight.
Right now, all Olt needs is playing time regularly and that will come. Luis Valbuena is better suited compared to Darwin Barney at second and that will open up third base for Olt full time. There is a ton of “if” with Olt, but there is a ton of upside as well. The Cubs just may have found their third baseman going forward as they move into their window of competing.