SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Mike Olt question hasn’t been answered publicly, with the Cubs debating whether or not to keep an exciting young player who’s become one of the biggest stories in camp.
But the Opening Day roster came into sharper focus on Wednesday, with the Texas Rangers claiming infielder Donnie Murphy off waivers and the Cubs releasing catcher George Kottaras. The Cubs also confirmed John Baker won the backup catcher job, with Eli Whiteside heading to Triple-A Iowa for depth behind Welington Castillo.
The Cubs are intrigued by the idea of getting younger and more athletic with Olt and outfielder Ryan Kalish, but they’re still working toward the 25 who will be there lining up against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday at PNC Park.
Whether or not Olt’s still on the bubble, he made an impression during a 14-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. He doubled and drove in two runs, bringing his total to 12 this spring. Why not let him hit behind Anthony Rizzo and see what happens?
Olt is the wild card at third base, where the Cubs still have other options in Luis Valbuena, Emilio Bonifacio and Ryan Roberts, a non-roster guy who’s pushing for a utility role.
Olt offers the most upside as a potential middle-of-the-order force, someone who put up 28 homers and 82 RBI in 95 games at Double-A Frisco in 2012, becoming the Texas organization’s minor league player of the year.
Olt has overcome the complicated vision issues that put him in play for last summer’s Matt Garza trade. He’s homered five times in the Cactus League, though a sore right shoulder has limited his time at third base and created some concerns about his defense.
Cubs fans and the Chicago media are fascinated by Olt, and the organization feels he might benefit from working through those issues in Des Moines. Then again, he’s already 25 years old and has played in The Show before.
When Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija talked about elite prospect Javier Baez and how “you got to come with all your bullets in the major leagues,” he could have also meant Olt.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, but you definitely can throw him in that category,” Samardzija said. “The way he’s been hitting, it hasn’t been like a fluke. You watch him hit, he looks comfortable. He looks confident. He swings, man. He swings hard. That’s what we need. We need guys like that who come in and know they’re going to hit. Not hoping they’re going to hit. He’s definitely one of those guys.”
The spring roster is now at 32, with pitchers Jake Arrieta, Kyuji Fujikawa and James McDonald expected to begin the season on the disabled list. Whiteside-to-Iowa is a pending procedural move.
So the Cubs have identified their two catchers in Castillo and Baker. Barring a last-minute trade or injury, they should have five infielders with Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro (assuming his hamstring’s healed), Luis Valbuena and Emilio Bonifacio (who can also play the outfield). They opened camp with four outfielders in place: Nate Schierholtz, Junior Lake, Justin Ruggiano and Ryan Sweeney.
That leaves four players for two spots: Olt, Roberts, Kalish and Chris Coghlan, the National League’s 2009 Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins. That same season, Kalish emerged as the minor league player of the year in the Boston Red Sox organization, so he has support within this front office.
Manager Rick Renteria won’t tip his hand, but having Olt in the lineup would be a reason to watch this team.
“Mike is still going out there and playing the game,” Renteria said. “All these guys are still going out and playing and showing us what they have.”