MESA, Ariz. – Mike Olt seems to fascinate the fans who want to see if he can live up to the hype that once made him a top prospect – and the reporters just trying to make it through another slow news day at Cubs Park.
One week from Opening Day, Cubs manager Rick Renteria won’t say who will be his third baseman on March 31 at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s been the biggest position battle at Camp Renteria.
“I’m not willing to tell you,” Renteria said before Monday’s 7-1 loss to the San Diego Padres at Cubs Park. “We’ll just let it keep playing itself out.”
Olt’s sore right shoulder has added some suspense to the decision. He said he’s feeling good now, but there are nagging concerns about the defense and if the shoulder will continue to be a lingering issue.
“I’m still trying to give up some bad habits I’ve created,” Olt said. “I wasn’t as aggressive as I usually am on some balls, so it all will come in a little bit. My arm felt really good. I’m happy with the way I felt the last week.”
Olt committed two errors in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 10-6 win over the Oakland A’s at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, throwing high to first base and missing a backhand play. Coming out of the University of Connecticut, Baseball America had rated him as the No. 3 overall college defender in the 2010 draft.
Olt didn’t let it bother him in the batter’s box, answering back in the eighth inning by driving a pitch from Oakland lefty Drew Pomeranz over the left-field wall for his fifth home run this spring.
“That’s one thing I got better with as I grew up,” Olt said. “There are going to be times where it’s not going to go well and I’m able to kind of block things out a lot better now. That wouldn’t have happened in years past.”
Olt is 25 years old and clearly one of the best hitters in camp. He would offer more upside potential than a mix-and-match approach with Luis Valbuena, Emilio Bonificio and maybe Ryan Roberts, the utility guy who’s pushing to earn a roster spot.
“He’s just a little rusty out there,” Renteria said. “I’m glad he’s swinging the bat. He’s been swinging the bat pretty much all spring. We’ll just keep putting him out there, letting him work through it and get himself comfortable.
“He doesn’t have a problem with the shoulder.”
It’s decision time at Cubs Park, where Carlos Villanueva gave up three runs in four innings against the Padres, trying to beat out Chris Rusin and become the No. 5 starter. The Cubs also assigned outfielder Darnell McDonald to minor-league camp, re-signed lefty Tsuyoshi Wada to a minor-league deal and sold the contract of reliever Chang-Yong Lim to the Samsung Lions in South Korea.
But the focus is on Olt, who has put up a .963 OPS and 14 strikeouts in 44 Cactus League at-bats. He appears to be over the concussion/vision/allergy/tear-duct problems that made him available in last summer’s Matt Garza trade with the Texas Rangers.
“Defense is like hitting – you got to work on it,” Olt said. “Luckily, defense comes easier to me than hitting, so I’ll be able to fix it pretty quickly.”
Olt is again looking like the guy who put up 28 homers and 82 RBI in 95 games at Double-A Frisco in 2012, becoming the organization’s minor league player of the year. The Garza haul also included pitchers C.J. Edwards (Baseball America’s No. 28 overall prospect), Justin Grimm (who’s likely to win a bullpen spot) and Neil Ramirez.
The Arizona Republic recently quoted Rangers general manager Jon Daniels as saying: “I thought way too short-term with the Garza deal last year. That one’s got a chance to haunt us and haunt me.”
Renteria’s response: “I won’t speak for him. Do I think we’re in a good place with the guys we got? Sure. And that’s all I’ll say.”
It would be out of character for Theo Epstein’s front office to rush a player who might benefit from more time at Triple-A Iowa. Cubs executives could figure it’s better for Olt to work through these issues in Des Moines, instead of inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl with 40,000 fans watching, the television cameras rolling and the Chicago media circling.