Mike Olt versus Luis Valbuena is not quite comparable to Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier trading blows in the boxing ring. However, the spring training battle for the Chicago Cubs starting third base job is one of the most intriguing matchups for Cubs fans to follow. Although Olt has out-produced Valbuena to date this spring, we would still give Olt the starting position on opening day even if he had not done so. That’s because Olt offers far more upside than Vabuena and more clarity to the Cubs rebuilding plans.
Let’s take a brief step back before wading into the competition.
Prior to the 2013 season, the right-handed hitting Olt, then in the Texas Rangers system, was ranked as the 32nd best minor league prospect by both MLB.com and Baseball America. He had enhanced his standing with a 2012 campaign at AA Frisco where he batted .288 with 28 home runs, 82 RBI, 61 walks, a .398 OBP and a .597 slugging percentage. It was during the 2012 season, when the Cubs traded Ryan Dempster to the Rangers, that they were reportedly rebuffed in their attempts to pry Mike Olt away from Texas.
Then, during the 2012 offseason, the event occurred that changed the trajectory of Olt’s career. During a Winter League game in the Dominican Republic, Olt was belted flush in the temple by a fastball, leading to a concussion and persistent blurriness in his left eye.
In 2013, plagued by vision problems, he was hitting just .213 with eleven HR and 32 RBI in 420 plate appearances for the Rangers AAA affiliate when he was included as a virtual afterthought in the Matt Garza deal that yielded star pitcher C.J. Edwards and two other pitching prospects. Olt’s struggles continued at AAA Iowa, where in 152 plate appearances he batted a meager .168 with three HR and eight RBI.
This offseason, it was finally determined that the blurry vision plaguing Olt’s career was being caused by the inability of his left tear duct to produce enough moisture to clear particles from his eye. Eye drops proved to be the antidote, as evidenced by Olt’s Spring Training performance. Through March 14, Olt was hitting .333 with three HR six RBI, and a .762 slugging percentage. Conversely, Valbuena was hitting just .188 with four RBI and three walks.
Olt, a first round sandwich pick in the 2010 draft, had hit well and showed plate discipline at every level in the minors prior to the vision problems. Scouting reports indicated that at a minimum, he would be an above-average defensive third-baseman with some insisting that he had the talent to become a Gold Glover caliber defender. Olt, if he makes the team, would also provide the Cubs with the only right-handed hitting, defensively seasoned option to spell left-handed hitting first-baseman Anthony Rizzo on days when the latter needs a breather.
Olt’s competition, Valbuena, is an exceptional defender. Among all major league third baseman who played a minimum of 600 innings at the position last season, Valbuena ranked seventh according to Frangraphs, a highly-respected saber-metrics site that evaluates the number of successful plays a player makes within his position’s designated “zone” (the hidden production). In 2012, his first season with the Cubs, Valbuena ranked third according to Fangraphs.
Offensively is where Valbuena struggles. In 694 plate appearances with the Cubs over two seasons, the left-handed hitter has averaged .218 with sixteen homers and 65 RBI. His 89 walks have helped boost his OBP to a respectable .322. At 28, it is unreasonable to expect the career .222 hitter with 1500 plate appearances to improve his offensive production markedly. Valbuena does provide exceptional defensive versatility, as he can play shortstop, second base and even a little outfield.
The Cubs immediate needs from their third baseman are offensive production and clarity about their rebuilding process. Mike Olt advances both these objectives.
Last season, the Cubs were 28th of 30 teams in runs scored and 14th of 15 National League teams despite playing half of their games in a home ballpark with the second highest run-per-game yield rate. In light of Olt’s pedigree, minor league production and apparent recovery from injury, his offensive ceiling appears to be much higher than Valbuena’s. The Cubs need to find out if this is the case.
Moreover, the Cubs need to know if Olt is their third-baseman of the future so that they can make decisions about other prospects coming through their minor league pipeline. 2013 first round selection Kris Bryant can be moved to right field, potentially, if Olt acquits himself well at third base. 2011 first round selection, Javier Baez, also a candidate to be moved to third base because of the presence of Starlin Castro at Baez’s natural position of shortstop, might have to be moved to second base.
If there are a surplus of qualified position prospects, the Cubs might have to make trades for additional pitching or lower level prospects who could serve as eventual replacements. The only way these dominoes can begin to fall is by giving their prospects an opportunity to perform at the major league level when they are ready.
With Bryant and Baez surging through the Cubs system and Olt proving with each day that his AAA struggles were likely an injury-related anomaly, allowing Olt to play now and not sending him back to AAA is the prudent choice. Meanwhile, keeping Valbuena in a reserve role to spell Olt, Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney, and to serve as a defensive replacement and pinch hitter, would enhance his value to the roster more than making him the everyday third baseman.
That is a position that should belong to Mike Olt.Follow paulmbanks