MESA, Ariz. – The Chicago Cubs never wavered during the winter whenever a reporter or fan asked what it would take for their top prospects to make the club out of spring training. The answer was always the same: “They can’t.”
But those talking points never applied to 25-year-old Mike Olt. It’s not as if Cubs officials were handing him the third-base job -- far from it -- but it was understood by what they didn’t say about him that Olt had a chance. He was the one exception to the “dominate every level of the minor leagues before being called up” narrative the Cubs had laid out for their other prospects. Olt is older and was on the verge of making the big leagues before being sidelined by vision problems.
Olt did dominate all the way up to Triple-A, where he struggled last season due to those eye issues. He still hit 14 home runs, which he attributed to “luck.” Now he’s seeing the ball again -- and hitting it well again. Two long home runs Wednesday night against the Seattle Mariners have vaulted him squarely into the conversation for the third-base job come Opening Day. He's hitting .333 this spring.
Undoubtedly, the Cubs wanted to see this Olt someday when they acquired him for Matt Garza last July. It was just a year earlier he was considered untouchable by the Texas Rangers, but his health issues made him expendable. He hit just .168 at Triple-A Iowa after the trade last season. There was no telling what would happen this spring.
But Olt insisted his vision problems were behind him after doctors figured out how to treat him with the correct eye drops. He didn’t exactly stand out early in spring, and when games started, he struck out a few more times than he would have liked. But things started to click for him after some recent batting-practice sessions.
“Made some serious strides,” he said Wednesday night.
They’ve paid off, which means the trade of Garza to the Rangers could yield even more than anyone thought. The key member of the deal was C.J. Edwards, who went on to win minor league pitcher of the year in all of baseball despite the midseason change of address. Now Olt is starting to show why Texas once thought so highly of him.
If he makes the team out of spring training, Cubs officials will be pleasantly surprised. They were set to start the season with Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy sharing time at third base until Olt or Kris Bryant was ready. Now there’s a chance Olt can seize the job, and if things go really well for him, it could move Bryant to the outfield eventually. But that’s a long way off. Right now, he has to keep doing what he’s doing, because the question has shifted from if his eye problems are over to just how good can he be?