Mike Olt is a 23 year old righthanded hitting third baseman who was selected by the Rangers out of the University of Connecticut with a compensatory pick (for the loss of Marlon Byrd) in the supplemental first round of the 2010 draft, going #49 overall, four picks after Texas picked high school righty pitcher Luke Jackson.
UConn isn't exactly known as a baseball factory -- prior to Olt, the last first rounder from UConn was Chuck Nagy, and other than Nagy, the most successful Huskie major leaguer is probably Rajai Davis -- and the pick was met with some consternation and concern among those Rangers fans who closely follow the draft. Baseball America had Olt ranked as the #98 prospect nationally going into the draft, saying that while his glove got positive reviews, he had holes in his swing and pitch recognition issues, although there was "reason to hope he can become an average major league hitter."
Olt signed quickly and was assigned to Spokane, where he got good reviews while posting a .293/.390/.464 line, although the 77 strikeouts in 310 plate appearances gave reason for concern. Still, Olt generated a lot of positive buzz through instructionals, with his bat getting better reviews than anticipated, and there was a sense that he could be a breakout guy in the Rangers system in 2011.
Olt lived up to the hype in 2011, getting off to a red-hot start in the high-A Carolina League, and seemingly being on track to get a second-half promotion to AA before a home plate collision on June 6 resulted in a broken collarbone that sidelined him for the next two months. Nevertheless, Olt finished up with a .267/.387/.504 line in 292 plate appearances in a pitcher's league, a showing that was good enough for BA to slot Olt at #3 in their Carolina League top 20 prospects, and earned him this praise:
"He reminded me of when I saw Evan Longoria in Double-A," Lynchburg manager Luis Salazar said. "He looks just like him. He's a tremendous athlete, he can pick it at third base and he's got good power to right-center field. This kid is a major league third baseman."
Olt followed that up with a terrific Arizona Fall League campaign, leading the league in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage, and his 1197 OPS was second-highest in the league, just 7 points behind Jedd Gyorko. That went a long way towards him getting named the #7 prospect in the AFL by BA, which is even more impressive when you realize that the top five prospects on the list were Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Danny Hultzen, Gerrit Cole, and Wil Myers.
Olt was featured prominently in the various offseason top 100 prospect lists that were generated prior to the 2012 season. Baseball America ranked Olt #43 overall. BP had Olt ranked #45 overall. Keith Law had Olt ranked #75 overall. Scout.com had Olt ranked #62 overall. While Olt wasn’t viewed the same way as, say, Jurickson Profar, most observers saw him as someone in the middle part of the top 100.
Olt was sent to AA Frisco to start the 2012 season, along with fellow stud prospect Jurickson Profar, and he dominated the Texas League, putting up a .288/.398/.579 line in 421 plate appearances. Strikeouts continued to be a bugaboo for Olt, as he K’d 101 times in those 421 plate appearances, but he hit home runs, drew a bunch of walks, and played stellar defense at third base.
His performance led Baseball America to put Olt at #11 in their mid-season prospect rankings, ahead of such highly-regarded prospects as Jameson Taillon, Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller and Travis D’Arnaud, while Law had Olt ranked at #46.
The Rangers, who saw their offense fall apart in July, 2012, while being unable to acquire anyone from outside the organization to provide the lineup with a spark, opted to promote Olt to the majors in early August, hoping he could give the team a shot in the arm. Olt started three of his first four games as a major leaguer, but a bad sequence in his third major league game, when he struck out with the bases loaded and two out in a tie game in the top of the 10th in Kansas City, followed by a throwing error in the bottom of the 10th that allowed the winning run to score, seemed to put an end to any consideration that he’d play regularly going forward. That game was on August 5. Olt started again on August 7, didn’t start again until August 15, started three game in a row from August 15-17, went 1 for 8 in that span, and then started just four more games the rest of the season.
Washington’s reluctance to use Olt, as well as Profar, once Profar was promoted, while running his regulars into the ground in August and September, is one of the more hot-button issues from last season, with reports indicating that the front office was expecting to see much more playing time for Olt and Profar down the stretch. However, Olt put up just a .152/.250/.182 line in 40 plate appearances, so it is hard to say that his performance earned him more playing time. In addition, a plantar fasciitis issue limited Olt’s availability down the stretch, further contributing to his lack of playing time.
Olt’s struggles after being promotion inevitably are going to cool somewhat the hype surrounding him, particularly given that the concerns voice about Olt – that his contact issues will limit how well his power will play at the major league level – are supported by the numbers from Olt’s cup of coffee, as Olt K’d in a third of his plate appearances and had just one extra base hit, a double, while in the majors.
Still, there continues to be a lot of enthusiasm about Olt heading into the 2013 season. Scout.com has Olt at #12 overall in their top 100 rankings. Baseball America’s top 100 rankings aren’t out yet, but I’d expect him to be in the 15-20 range when their list is released. Olt finished fourth BA’s rankings for the Texas League in 2012, which may not seem impressive, but the guys he finished behind were Jurickson Profar, Oscar Taveras, and Wil Myers – all consensus top 10 in baseball prospects.
The concern with a lot of power-hitting third basemen is that they aren't going to be able to handle the hot corner long term and will have to move across the diamond to first base...Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, and Mark Teixeira, among others, started their careers as third basemen before getting shifted.
That's not a concern with Olt, however. He played shortstop as a freshman at UConn, and while reports on his defense vary, just about every observer has him as no worse than average at the position, and he generally gets an above-average grade for his defense, with most pegging him as an above-average defender and some suggesting he could be Gold Glove caliber at the hot corner. Third base has traditionally been a difficult position for major league teams to fill, and a plus defender who can hit has a lot of value.
Offensively, Olt doesn't profile to hit for a high average -- he's not a burner (his speed has been described as "fringe-average"), and he strikes out a lot, so he's someone you figure isn't likely to be more than a .260-.270 hitter in the majors, even if things break right for him. However, because Olt hits for power and draws walks, he doesn't have to be a high-average hitter to be a quality offensive player.
With Olt, his future rests on his hit tool, and how that translates as he moves up the developmental ladder. He's got the power, the plate discipline, and the defensive chops to be a quality major league third baseman...whether he cashes in on that promise will depend on how his hit tool develops and translates at the upper levels. If he can simply hit .240 while maintaining his power and his walks, he'll be able to have a 10 year major league career. That's easier said than done, however...we said that if Taylor Teagarden could hit .220, he'd be a solid major league catcher, and that hasn't happened. On the other hand, if Olt can hit .260-.270 on a regular basis, he’s likely an All Star caliber third baseman.
How quickly can we expect to see Olt? Well, we saw him last year in a bench role over the last two months, but the Rangers have indicated that they aren’t going to have him start the season in the majors as a bench player, so he (and Profar) are expected to head to AAA Round Rock to start the season.
Olt still has less than 1100 plate appearances as a professional, owing to his missing half the 2011 season with injury and getting limited playing time the final two months of the 2012 season. Giving Olt significant playing time in AAA, where he can face more experienced pitchers than in the Texas League, pitchers who are more likely to take advantage of his strikeout tendencies and who will force him to make adjustments, isn’t a bad thing. On the other hand, Olt turns 25 in August, and it isn’t unreasonable to think he’s major league ready now. While the Rangers were trying to use Olt as the centerpiece of a deal to land Justin Upton much of the offseason, he’s still in Texas at this point, and if they don’t move him during 2013, they’re going to have a hard decision for 2014, as they’ll likely have to trade either Olt or Adrian Beltre at that point.
What sort of ceiling does Olt have? The comparison I made last year is that, if Olt pans out, he can be Dan Uggla with very good third base defense. I’m sticking with that comparison. While Uggla has tailed off since joining Atlanta, from age 26-30, he put up a .263/.349/.488 line with 154 homers in 776 games. That sort of peak for Olt seems attainable.
If Olt does that for a five year stretch, with his glovework, that’s probably a 4-5 WAR player, and All-Star caliber player.
One of the ongoing discussions among Rangers fans is whether Olt should be moved to first base. It has been argued that if Olt's bat lives up to his potential, then instead of trading Olt, the Rangers should just slide him over to first base and let him take over there, either now or in the near future.
While I wouldn't rule it out completely, I think, generally speaking, it is a pretty bad idea. Even if we assume Olt can become a plus defender at first base -- a not unreasonable assumption, I believe -- moving a quality defensive third baseman across the diamond to first base kills a lot of the player's value. The 162 game average posted above provides a lot of value if the player putting those numbers up is doing so while offering above-average defense at third base...if the player is doing it at first base, however, even with good defense, you're talking about a downgrade from a borderline All Star to maybe an average regular.
I wrote this last season, about the possibility of moving Olt to 1B:
This talk is premature, in any case...if Mike Olt performs up to expectations, and if Adrian Beltre continues to play like he did in 2011, then the Rangers will have a nice problem on their hands. They could decide to include Olt as the prize piece in a trade package to land a key veteran, or they could see what the trade market holds for Beltre (who would be moveable if he keeps playing at this level).
Its a good problem to have.
With Olt and Beltre both having great 2012 seasons, the Rangers are in basically the same place as they were last year at this point. And it is still a good problem to have.