Mike Olt is a strong man. He's a patient man. He's a man with a good glove. And he is a man almost wholly written off in some parts. He's a man with undeniable warts and undeniable talents; this is a quality he shares with everyone in baseball not named Mike Trout. Most importantly to me, he's a man who will likely be tabbed Opening Day as the starting 3B for the Chicago Cubs. How scared should you be?
Not very. I think there's a great chance that Mike Olt provides actual, no-fooling value right away.
Mike Olt was born August 27, 1988 in New Haven, CT. I've been to New Haven (Yale is there, and I took a visit with a friend during our college search. Didn't get in.), and it's not a place you'd expect greatness to emerge outside of the actual campus of Yale (outer New Haven is representative of Outer Heaven, or lets go with Cabrini Green for those who aren't Metal Gear fans), but greatness did in fact emerge. Mike Olt attended UConn for three years, and he more-or-less mashed as soon as he attended. The Huskies went from a 27-28 team Olt's freshman year to 48-16, 2nd in the Big East, and 28th in the country his junior year. This was good enough for Olt to be drafted in the 1st round (48th overall by the Texas Rangers); Olt was the first Husky to be drafted in the first round since Charles Nagy in 1988 (two UConn alum were drafted in the first round in 2011; George Springer and Matt Barnes).
Olt was immediately sent to A- to finish the season and he was great there (.400 wOBA). In 2011, he started the season in Rookie ball (this makes sense. Rookie seasons are essentially over at the conclusion of a college season, and Olt played relatively deep into the CWS anyways. Combine that with the fact that he's a 3-yr college player, and you'd feel comfortable putting him in A- for a half-season, but maybe not comfortable enough to keep him there if you have another option), but shortly earned a promotion to A+ after 15 plate appearances and continued his dominance of the minors. He earned a trip to the AFL that season; in 127 PA, he absolutely eviscerated the league with a .485 wOBA. He hit a HR every 10 PA.
All of this success masked a minor problem; Olt's strikeout rate. Olt had always carried a nice walk rate, but his strikeout rate hovered around 21% in college (23.9, 26.0, 17.8), and had predictably grown in the majors. In 2011, his strikeout rate had climbed to 25.6%. In fact, Mike Olt and Bert Jerkson had nearly identical 2011 campaigns (14.7% and 25.6% for Olt, 15.4% and 27.0% for Jackson), and Brett Jackson's campaign was in AA-AAA. Olt would have to fix this in 2012 to take the next step to universal top-prospect.
He didn't. He repeated his 24.0% mark in AA (he had 24.0% in A+ the year before), and was absolutely lost at the plate in a call-up, owning a .206 wOBA at the major league level in his 40 PA taste. Still, failing at the majors is a common occurrence even among the best prospects. As a 23-year old only in his 2nd full professional year, setbacks are the norm.
The problems really started in the Dominican Winter League. Olt was hit by a pitch, in the head. He suffered a concussion, and his vision started getting funky. Eventually, it'd be diagnosed as a derangement of the tear ducts. The derangement eventually failed in keeping his eyes free from allergies, and with that, Olt's vision deteriorated. Olt would free-fall in 2013, going from 1.7 strikeouts per walk in 2012 to 2.4 strikeouts per walk in 2013. This apparently career-altering injury allowed the Rangers to include him as a reclamation project in a Matt Garza deal. Olt went to Des Moines and was frankly terrible.
Or was he? The line is putrid: .168/.276/.275. The wOBA (.262) would be the lowest by 60 points and any non-MLB stop in his career. However, his strikeouts went down to 24.3%. His K per BB fell from 2.5 in Texas to 1.9. His BABIP was .207; that's indicative of poor contact but also some poor luck. His ISO was much, much lower than it was in previous seasons (.107 for Des Moines). Olt was bad in Des Moines, but not as bad as his initial line looks.
In 2014, the expectation was that Olt was bound for AAA if not another organization. 3B is deeper in Chicago than any other organization, with Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Christian Villanueva, and Jeimer Candelario all having at least a reasonable shot at ending up there. 2 of those players are Top 15 prospects in baseball. Couple that with the fact that the Cubs were coming off competent campaigns from the incumbent timeshare at 3B in Luis Valbuena and Donnie Baseball, and things looked grim.
It didn't play out that way. Olt claimed his vision problems were behind him, leaving only a lingering shoulder issue that's affected him since his 2009 UConn days. The spring training line looks promising in some areas (.275/.321/.608, 5 HR) and not promising in others (15 Ks, 4 BBs, 55 PAs). Murphy was sent to Texas, and Valbuena sent to 2B (his more natural position anyway). We're at the point where Olt isn't just an option at 3B, but the expected starter there.
Olt's carrying card has always been his power; he has a lot of it. His debut season saw him hit 23 HR in college and 9 in the pros for good measure. Until 2013, Olt's lowest SLG was the .527 he had in 2009 at UConn, a year in which he was sidelined for a sore right shoulder (I believe). Olt is also the rare specimen who improves his walk rate at each level; 10% as a freshman, 12.1% in 09 and 10, 14.7% in 2011, and finally 14.3% in 2012. Given these numbers, it's an easy walk to believe that Olt's going to rebound to something like those rates in 2014.
Olt's K rates have consistently been in the 21 to 26 percent rate, and those are livable. The 2013 number (30.6%) is definitely not. Olt will have to shore that up to have a future at the major league level; honestly, he'd have to shore up the 21 to 26% rate he had through AA because the pitching doesn't get easier.
Olt's power is going to allow him to dictate how he is pitched, and he'll be able to draw his share of walks as a result. That being said, Olt is particularly vulnerable to some pitches; some scouts believe his swing leaves him vulnerable to top-shelf velocity and that he still chases the outside junk.
If you were to take Olt's minor league line before 2012 and find a comparable major leaguer, you'd have a really hard time. He had the walks and strikeouts of Chase Headley, but the production of Josh Donaldson. That's somewhere in the vicinity of 3.5 to 7.7 WAR (helpful, I know). Unfortunately, that's a poor approximation of what he'd translate to in the majors. Olt's 24.3% mark in those seasons already puts him at 18th in 2013, just ahead of Yoenis Cespedes. A better comparable might be Mark Trumbo; Trumbo walked 8% of the time in 2013 and struck out 27% of the time. Those seem in line with what we might expect from Olt. Funnily enough, Trumbo and Olt share similar ISOs throughout the minors. Even this is a pale comparator, though; Trumbo had lower walk rates and strikeout rates than Olt in the Majors. LOWER than Olt's! Still, if Olt can recreate Trumbo's .250/.300/.470 line, maybe with a little higher OBP and a little lower SLG, that wouldn't shock me. Attached to a plus glove at 3rd, it'd also be quite valuable.
Olt is a plus defender at 3B. He's the prototypical size (6' 2", 210) for the position, and he's mechanically sound there. While slow, Olt is agile, with a good first step and the arm is a factor at 3rd for him. Earlier this spring training, he made a nice charge and throw to nail Mike Trout on a dribbler to left. Villanueva is a better defender than Olt (probably the best defender in the Cubs system), but Olt is definitely stout enough to be a plus there and not a minus.
Olt went from untouchable in a Dempster trade in 2012 to a reclamation project in a Garza trade in 2013. As much as one would like to think this was solely the work of a deranged tear duct, it wasn't. Olt has some swing-and-miss issues he'll have to address to improve. Luckily, even maintaining his pre-2013 rates would result in a useful player; improving among them could put Olt in the upper-tier of third basemen in short order. The leash will be short, given the myriad replacements at 3B hungry and waiting for their chance at the hot corner. Hopefully, Olt plays well enough to cement his place there for the foreseeable future.