Cubs see the upside in Mike Olt and Ryan Kalish

Cubs see the upside in Mike Olt and Ryan Kalish
March 27, 2014, 5:45 pm

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs will be getting an infusion of youth, energy and athleticism in Mike Olt and Ryan Kalish. They can’t stop the liquidation sale or lift the team out of last place all by themselves. But they have a chance to stick around.

Some 96 hours before Opening Day, the team announced Olt and Kalish made the roster, striking a balance between the present and the future. This sounded like the outcome Cubs executives and Cubs bloggers had been rooting for this spring.

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Heading into Year 3 of Theo Epstein’s rebuild, the Cubs have taken so many shots on change-of-scenery players with injury histories and top-prospect pedigrees. Why not Olt and Kalish? 

Tourist season ended at Cubs Park with Thursday’s 4-3 win over the White Sox, their final Cactus League game before two exhibitions against the Arizona Diamondbacks this weekend at Chase Field. Across the last six weeks in Mesa, so much attention has been paid to A-ball players like Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.

But Olt is 25 years old and Kalish will turn 26 on Friday. They could matter now and later. One has the potential to be the everyday third baseman, batting cleanup behind Anthony Rizzo. The other is a kamikaze outfielder with game-changing speed.

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“We’re trying to keep the focus on the major-league team,” Epstein said this week. “That’s what’s most important. We’ve spent more time in this camp working on advance scouting the Pirates than we have Javier Baez’ plate discipline. There are short-term interests, which are really important as well. We’re trying to win these games.

“Now, if there’s a chance to make a Matt Garza trade or a Scott Feldman trade once – if – we get to a point that we’re out of it, we’re going to do what we need to do.”

The Cubs burned through 56 players last season. That broke the franchise record for players used in a season – which had been set in 2012 with 53 – so you’ve probably read all about the potential upside guys before. But Olt and Kalish have lived through the hype, giving them good perspective, a professional approach and an appreciation for the game. 

Olt’s story was complicated by all the concussion/vision/tear-duct/allergy problems that made him available in last summer’s Matt Garza trade with the Texas Rangers. He had been untouchable the year before, generating 28 homers and 82 RBI in 95 games at Double-A Frisco, emerging as the organization’s minor league player of the year.

Kalish got squeezed when the Boston Red Sox needed a spot on their 40-man roster after a worst-to-first World Series turnaround. Shoulder surgeries had wrecked his last three seasons, and he underwent a cervical fusion procedure performed by the same doctor who operated on Peyton Manning’s neck.

The Cubs front office has known Kalish since he was a star quarterback/defensive back at Red Bank Catholic High School in New Jersey. They selected him in the ninth round of the 2006 draft, giving him an above-slot deal and convincing him to turn down a scholarship offer to play two sports at the University of Virginia.

“It’s obviously not going to be an easy road,” Kalish said. “It’s the minor leagues. It’s not a glorious trip, but it’s basically like going to the school of baseball. You go to college and you’re going to play and learn. But when you go professional out of high school, you’re learning baseball right from Day 1, not only the game stuff but how you act in the clubhouse.” 

The Cubs would have to hit the jackpot to become this season’s surprise team. But if Olt and Kalish start to look like core players, and Rizzo and Starlin Castro have bounce-back years, and Junior Lake produces for a full season, and Baez makes his Wrigley Field debut this summer, then you might have a big-league product worth watching.

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“The most important part is how they adjust mentally to the ups and downs,” pitcher Carlos Villanueva said. “You’re not going to hit all year long. You’re not going to be that hot all year long. I think it was a good learning experience for Castro last year. 

“He went through that and the guy doesn’t know how to handle that. He’s never (experienced that before). He’s an All-Star. He got 200 hits. He hit everywhere he’s been. All of a sudden, he sees himself (struggling). He’s like: ‘What’s going on?’ But you can’t overcome that unless you go through it. As long as they come back strong, the potential is there.”

There’s no doubt Wrigley Field is a tough place to play. Check back in a few weeks to see the Twitter buzz if Olt and Kalish look like they should be at Triple-A Iowa and Lake, Castro and Rizzo aren’t making the adjustments.  

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“You grow up here,” Villanueva said. “You either can do it or you can’t. (Here) you go, let’s see what you can do. (You’re) in a great place to be loved and adored by many, but at the same time, they’ll turn on you quick.” 

Building a winner is a much slower process. But with players like Olt and Kalish, the Cubs feel like they’re putting the foundation pieces in place.