Cubs betting on a bounce-back season for Mike Olt

Cubs betting on a bounce-back season for Mike Olt
February 10, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Mike Olt might be The Most Interesting Man in Cubs camp.

OK, that's a stretch, but there’s always some overselling in spring-training coverage, especially with a 96-loss team that didn’t sign a major free agent or make any big trades this winter.

Masahiro Tanaka’s entourage won’t be following him around the new complex when pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., this week. The window for Jeff Samardzija’s long-term extension appears to be closing, if it hasn’t already slammed shut. There’s no chance Javier Baez or Kris Bryant will make the Opening Day roster.

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So if the Cubs are going to be interesting in 2014 – or at least not get buried by Memorial Day – they will have to hit on some buy-low, high-upside, change-of-scenery types. Olt is a 25-year-old third baseman looking for a fresh start on a Cubs team that will need an offensive spark.

“I don’t really have anything I feel like I have to prove,” Olt said. “I know that I put in a lot of hard work and I think last year was good for me in dealing with a lot of adversity. It’s going to make me a better player and I’m going to (learn) from it.”

The Texas Rangers drafted Olt out of the University of Connecticut with the 49th overall pick in 2010. The Rangers signed All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre to a six-year, $96 million deal in January 2011, but they still refused to give up Olt when the Cubs tried to shop Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza in July 2012.

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Olt emerged as the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2012, putting up 28 homers, 82 RBI and a .977 OPS in 95 games at Double-A Frisco. But he got hit by a pitch that offseason while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, which led to lingering concussion issues and vision problems.

“It was a freak accident,” Olt said. “It happens in baseball. Last year, I had to deal with a couple things from it. Texas did a great job in letting me see a bunch of doctors and I got great attention. I feel like that’s in the past now.”

Last season, Olt hit .201 with 15 homers and 42 RBI in 107 minor-league games. Olt wasn’t quite a throw-in, but he also wasn’t the centerpiece when the Cubs finally completed the Garza deal last summer. While pitcher C.J. Edwards made headlines and helped lead Class-A Daytona to a Florida State League title, Olt struggled at Triple-A Iowa, hitting .168 with 37 strikeouts in 39 games.

[Prospect Watch: Pierce Johnson making Cubs take notice]

“A year, a year-and-a-half ago, Mike Olt’s untouchable on the trade market,” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “(This) offseason he’s met with some specialists and tried some different things with eye drops and he feels really good.

“He’s an athletic, strong guy that can play defense, so all of that is still there. Of course, the big thing is going to be once he gets out on the field and starts facing guys in live BP. I think we’re going to see pretty early in camp just how the things that he’s done over the offseason have taken effect.

“But this is a guy that was one of the top-rated prospects in the game two minor-league seasons ago that we couldn’t get. You look back at the Ryan Dempster trade – this is a guy they wouldn’t even talk about.

“He still is a tremendously talented guy with upside. We felt it was certainly worth – I don’t know if you want to call it risk – but certainly worth acquiring that potential.”

Cubs executives are hoping the Olt investment will pay dividends in 2014. Journeymen Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy will be competing for the third-base job this spring. Christian Villanueva – another former Texas prospect acquired in the Dempster trade – and No. 2 overall pick Bryant will be pushing from the upper levels of the system this season.

[Cubs Prospect Watch: Kris Bryant ignores the hype]

Olt will have to make a strong impression if he’s going to be part of the future at Clark and Addison.

“Mentally, he’s doing well,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “In this business, if you try to buy guys at the high point of the market, you’re not going to have a lot of success. You need to always be looking for guys that maybe had a down year. Maybe there was a reason behind it and he can hopefully bounce back.

“We just hope that he looks back on a long, successful career and 2013 is the nadir. That’s the hope. That’s why you try to buy low on guys. Because he was a guy we tried to get in 2012 and we couldn’t. So hopefully his downturn was our benefit. We’ll find out.”