Unless you have been living under a rock for the past several months, you know that 23-year old Kris Bryant is ultimately going to be the long-term third baseman for the Chicago Cubs. And if anyone still doubts that, all fans have to do is take a gander at the new Adidas “Worth the Wait” billboard, directly across the Wrigley Field marquee, which prominently displays Bryant’s face plastered front and center.
Bryant, for obvious reasons has been the talk of the town. The second overall selection in the 2013 MLB Draft, Bryant has risen through the ranks of Chicago’s farm system at an astronomical rate. In 2014 between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, Bryant mashed 43 long balls, drove in 110 runs, and had a slash line of .325/.438/.661. He did not slow down in his first big league Spring Training where the young slugger was indisputably the best hitter in the league, as exhibited by his 1.652 OPS in 14 games. Barring an injury or some unforeseen stagger in his development, there is no reason to not to believe that Bryant’s numbers will translate quite smoothly into the Major Leagues very soon.
But before Kris Bryant was taking the MLB by storm, current Cubs’ third baseman Mike Olt was in a particularly similar situation. Ranked the 16th best prospect by MLB.com in 2012 with the Texas Rangers organization, Olt showed signs of solid defensive capabilities, an aptitude for getting on base, and the potential to produce runs in the heart of any batting order. In 95 games in 2012 with the Frisco Roughriders, Olt produced 28 home runs and had a slash line of .288/.398/.579.
Entering 2013, Olt was ranked by Baseball America as the league’s 22nd best prospect, but struggled mightily out of the gate in Triple-A, predominantly due to vision problems that affected his depth perception. As a result, Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs decided to buy low on Olt and acquired him in the multi-player Matt Garza trade. His numbers in Triple-A Iowa were not all that impressive for the rest of the 2013 season, but he began to heat up at the plate in 2014, hitting .302/.348/.585 in 28 games in the minors before eventually being called up to the Cubs.
Olt has yet to find his stride on the major league level in 105 career games — 89 of which were in 2014 with Chicago — facing difficulties with plate discipline and strikeouts despite possession of great power. In 89 games with the Cubs in 2014, Olt walked only 25 times in comparison to his 100 strikeouts in 258 total plate appearances. On the bright side, 12 of his 36 hits were home runs, which would set an MLB record for the most home runs by a player with a batting average below .170.
A .160 batting average in 89 games obviously isn’t all that encouraging, especially when an All Star in-the-making such as Kris Bryant is biding his time in Triple-A until his presumed call-up towards the end of April. It is all but a given that Mike Olt will lose his starting position at third base, but should he? His Spring Training play this past month indicates that it might be more difficult to take the job from Olt than initially imagined.
While he has not assembled the same eye-popping offensive numbers that Bryant has, Olt has quietly manufactured a solid spring at third base, hitting .271/.386/.542 in 22 games. More impressively, the former prodigy has displayed maturation as a hitter, leading the Cubs with 8 walks, tremendously improving his walks-to-strikeouts ratio. It’s a small sample, but an encouraging one. At age 26, it might finally be time Olt emerges as a consistent on-base threat to complement his above average defense and agility at third base.
“It’s crazy to think about it, but I used to be one of those guys,” Olt said to the Chicago Sun Times in reference to his former hype as a prospect. “Now I’ve started feeling myself becoming that guy again. It makes baseball fun again.” When questioned about Bryant’s surge to the majors, Olt commented, “He deserves all the hype he gets. He’s one of the best ones I’ve seen come up. I’m just working on what I need to work on and it’s easy to focus on that when you’ve got a lot of things to work on from last year.”
Olt has earned his spot on the Opening Day starting lineup, but there are still going to be concerns about his plate approach. If Olt can improve and continue his progress from the spring, the Cubs front office will have a very interesting problem on their hands when Bryant is eligible to be called up to the 25-man roster. Unlike last season, Olt will be on a much shorter leash and needs to prove that he can consistently hit major league pitching. There are no questions concerning his power, but whether or not he can be any bit like .283 hitter we saw in the spring is anyone’s guess.
When push comes to shove, Kris Bryant will take Mike Olt’s position because he is the better player. Nobody could argue or even remotely debate that statement. But Olt has one month to prove he belongs on the same roster as his positional adversary. ” I’m ready to play wherever they need me, and I think (Bryant) said the same thing. It’s whatever is going to help the team, and I’m on board with that,” Olt told the Chicago Tribune. Olt and Bryant will both get work in the outfield, in case of a scenario in which both are productive hitters on the Cubs roster. However, it will be very interesting to follow Olt in 2015 to see if he can further develop throughout April and May.
Analysts, players and fans alike are patiently awaiting the day Kris Bryant makes his MLB debut, but Mike Olt has time and the talent necessary to avoid being completely kicked to the curb when it happens. The Chicago Cubs’ rebuilding project is nearly complete, and the front office’s long-term vision for Olt solely relies on his performance early on in the regular season. This makes Mike Olt a must-follow player, as he now enters his prime years vying for a spot on the roster. It is now or never to live up to his potential and only time will tell what kind of player he becomes.
If he proves his progression in the spring is legitimate, he should not be overlooked. Mike Olt may never be Kris Bryant, but he can be a major contributor to the Chicago Cubs’ championship pursuits in the near future. Will he? Who knows. But 2015 is the year we will find out.