Olt keeping his focus on the field

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – While third baseman Mike Olt is hearing his name mentioned in trade rumors for the second consecutive year, the Texas Rangers are hesitant to give him up for a summer rental player. Lone Star Dugout features and interviews the 23-year-old prospect, who talked about the trade rumors and his development this season.

As the trade deadline approaches, Texas Rangers third base prospect Mike Olt's future is hanging in the balance for a second consecutive summer. Due to the presence of Adrian Beltre in Arlington, Olt's name has been mentioned in trade rumors perhaps more than any prospect in baseball the past two years.

The Rangers have been adamant that shortstop Jurickson Profar––arguably baseball's top prospect currently in the minors––is untouchable. If the club is to make a deal for any top player––such as Miami's Josh Johnson––they would almost certainly have to part with Olt.

But that doesn't mean the Rangers are looking to trade the power-hitting prospect. In fact, they've refused to give him up for a summer rental player. According to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com and Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Rangers' and Brewers' discussions over a potential Zack Greinke deal hit a snag when Texas refused to part with Olt or left-handed pitcher Martin Perez.

Greinke, a free agent after this season, ultimately landed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

On the surface, it would seem that Olt is a blocked prospect. Although he's a plus defender at the hot corner, the Rangers have one of baseball's best all-around third basemen locked up through at least the 2015 season.

But Olt could still play a valuable role for the Rangers in the coming seasons, and that's why the club is reluctant to trade him without getting an elite player whom they'd control for multiple years in return.

Over the last two years, there have been many suggestions that the Rangers should trade Olt because his positional value is at its highest at third base. And barring an injury to Beltre, his first couple major league seasons wouldn't be played at third base.

However, Olt's potential impact bat and corner versatility could still provide plenty of value to Texas.

Although the Rangers' powerful offense is currently second in the majors with 493 runs scored and a cumulative .784 OPS, there's some upcoming roster uncertainty. Lineup fixtures Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy are all set to become free agents after either the 2012 or 2013 seasons.

Profar and Olt are the two upper-level prospects seemingly ready to come in and produce for the Rangers––perhaps as early as next season. If Olt remains with Texas, he could be playing in Arlington this September.

A plus defender at third base with smooth actions, good agility and a strong arm, Olt has begun to expand his versatility this season. While he's seen the majority of his action at third base, he has played 11 games at first base and three recent contests in right field.

As an excellent third baseman, the UConn product should have little issue adjusting to first base once he gains experience and gets comfortable. He showed off his range and agility in the corner infield during a preseason exhibition game against Mexico City, making a diving play down the first-base line (video in the link).

Olt, who has played errorless ball at both first base and right field this season, should also have the ability to handle a corner outfield spot. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound prospect is a fringe-average runner, but he's a good athlete with quick reflexes and the plus arm.

In other words, there are plenty of ways Olt can help the Rangers' organization. He could do it by sticking around––which the club would certainly like to see––and he could do it by helping them acquire a front-end starting pitcher.

At the plate, the 23-year-old slugger is having a fantastic season. He currently sports a .287/.399/.581 slash line through 90 games at Double-A Frisco, leading the Texas League with 27 home runs. He's also drawn 59 walks (14.8% rate) and struck out 94 times (23.6%).

The biggest downside to Olt's offensive game is the strikeouts. Despite his patient approach and elite bat speed, he'll likely always have some swing and miss in his game. But after getting out to a relative slow start in April, when he hit .250 with good power but a 29.4 percent strikeout rate, his approach has improved.

Since April, the prospect is hitting .301/.416/.602 with a 15.2% walk rate and a 21.6% strikeout rate. His bat speed enables him to not only make adjustments more easily, but also to catch up to plus velocity. He'll still need to improve a bit against offspeed stuff, as was on display when he scuffled versus big league pitching in spring training this year.

While the swing and miss limits Olt's hit tool, he projects to become about an average hitter––hitting in the .260-.270 range––with 30-plus home run potential and the plate discipline to draw walks. In addition, his plus glove at third base and four-corners versatility should give him excellent value as a big leaguer.

Olt's offensive improvements were on display during a recent game at Corpus Christi, when he made an adjustment mid-plate appearance against a reliever with plus velocity.

After swinging through a 97 mph fastball from Corpus Christi reliever Josh Zeid early in the at-bat, Olt––as he explains in the following interview––adjusted and laid off a slider before crushing a 96 mph fastball over the left-center field fence.

Beltre doubled off first; Olt homers: 7/20/2012 (best viewed in full screen and HD).

Olt says he's shaking off the trade rumors for the time being. While the Rangers' recent actions have made it clear that they'd like to keep the power-hitting prospect around, there's always the chance that he still ends up with another club before the July 31 deadline.

Jason Cole: I want to talk about your season in general. What are your thoughts on how things have gone this year?

Mike Olt: This year has been good. Obviously early in the season––the last time we talked––I was still working on making some adjustments. I was able to make those adjustments throughout the season, and I'm happy with the outcome.

Cole: What are those adjustments you were able to make?

Olt: It was mainly––not really with my swing, but just with the way I was going about every at-bat. It was a lot more of the mental side of how things need to be, what's the difference between High-A and Double-A, and what's going to be the mental aspect in the big leagues.

Cole: While I'm sure you weren't satisfied with the results, you got some valuable experience with the big league club during spring training. What did you learn while there? How did you feel that helped you make the jump to Double-A?

Olt: I definitely didn't do as well as I'd wanted. I think that was because I just––I was maybe more of free-swinger in spring training. This year, I definitely have more of a plan when I go up to the at-bats.

Watching those guys and the way they batted in spring training––they're very selective. They're looking for one spot. And they're not afraid to take balls right down the middle if that's not what they're looking for. So I took that, learned from it, and kept it going here.

Cole: You've always been a pretty patient hitter who draws quite a few walks. What did you feel was behind the free-swinging approach in spring training?

Olt: I was coming off the bench, and you want to be aggressive against those guys––the relievers that throw hard. You want to be aggressive. You don't want to see any of their secondary stuff, so it kind of threw me off the way I usually play.

And then you have the fact that you want to just––I felt like that was the way I was going to get comfortable. I felt like I had to go out there swinging, and that's the exact opposite of what you need to do when you're hitting.

Cole: While you're relatively close to the major leagues, you were also entering just your second full season of pro ball during camp this year. Was there anybody you faced in spring training that made you think, ‘Okay, I'm facing this guy' when you stepped in?

Olt: Axford for the Brewers. Yeah, he was something. He came in late on a nice cold day. Stepping into the box and getting to see him––that was one of those at-bats, for sure.

Cole: For the most part, you've made improvements with each month this season. In what areas do you feel you have progressed offensively since spring training?

Olt: Definitely my plate discipline has been huge. It started out with a lot of strikeouts early in the season, like I always do. And then I kind of figure things out. But a lot of my strikeouts now are good strikeouts. It's not like I'm throwing at-bats away.

I'm battling now, and a lot of my strikeouts come on 3-2. A lot of them are looking. And that's sometimes a bad thing, but that's just because I'm being selective. A lot of my at-bats later have been really good, and that's what I want to have. I want to have the seven, eight, or 10-pitch at-bats instead of having a quick get-in-there ground ball out or a quick 1-2-3 strikeout.

Cole: You were facing plus velocity last night against Corpus Christi reliever Josh Zeid, who was throwing his fastball at 96-97 mph. After being behind and swinging through early in the at-bat, you made the adjustment and hit a home run to left-center. Tell me about that at-bat.

Olt: Yeah, I took the first swing at that fastball. It hit the mitt and then I swung (laughs). I really got back there and said, ‘Oh, I've got to make the adjustment and get the foot down earlier.' That helped me adjust to his slider. He's got a good slider. But once I was able to get the foot down, I was able to recognize it early, so I didn't swing at those. And then I was hoping to get something up in the zone, and he left one up.

Cole: Last night, you played first base for the 10th time this season. How's it going so far over there? How much more comfortable are you feeling?

Olt: I definitely feel more comfortable just around the bag––getting there and feeling like I have more time to kind of feel where the ball is going instead of getting to the bag and feeling for my feet and where they're going to go. It's more just reaction to the ball. And I definitely feel more comfortable. But there's still a lot to go, I guess. I'm getting a lot closer.

Cole: In the preseason exhibition game against Mexico City, you played first base and made a diving stop on a hard-hit ball down the line. But I've seen you play first with Frisco a handful of times this season, and I don't think you've really been challenged with a tough ground ball like that.

Olt: Yeah, the first time I played there, I had like seven ground balls hit to first. And then I really don't think I've had another ground ball since (laughs). It's just been like a couple picks and that's it.

Cole: I imagine the routine ground balls are no problem for you, being a good third baseman. But what's the most difficult thing about adjusting to first base?

Olt: I think a lot of it, for me, was just––there were times where a ball wasn't hit to me, and I was kind of just sitting there like, ‘Okay, well I've got nothing to do.' And then I realized that I've got to cover the bag.

So a lot of it was just staying focused for the whole game and remembering where I was. But really, it is easy. The routine balls, you make. You knock it down. I guess double plays are the hardest ones because I've never done it before.

Cole: Have you had to start any double plays at first base yet?

Olt: I've done two, I think. That was my first time ever doing that.

Cole: Have you had a 3-6-3 double play where you had to get back to the bag?

Olt: No, I just let the pitcher go get it (laughs).

Cole: You've also played two games in right field (note: one more since this interview was conducted). Had you ever played in the outfield before this season?

Olt: No, never. I feel like the outfield came a lot easier. Because in BP, I like to go out there for at least one round and just shag and get reads on balls. I felt like that came a lot easier. I felt way more comfortable in right field than I did the first couple times playing first base. So that was good.

Cole: Rangers minor league field coordinator Jayce Tingler was recently with you guys, managing the club while Steve Buechele was on his mid-season vacation. Did you play right field when he was out here?

Olt: Yeah, Ting was here both times I played right field.

Cole: What did he tell you, if anything, before you went out there?

Olt: We just went over footwork, basically, and what I need to be doing on certain balls. Basically I've got to be somewhere on every play. You think you have a break out in the outfield, but you have to be somewhere every time. So we went over stuff like that, got the footwork situated, and got some reads.

Cole: How was throwing from the outfield? Is it different mechanics than throwing from third base?

Olt: Yeah, it's a little bit different. I have more velocity on my ball in the outfield. I'm able to air it out a little bit more and open it up. It's not really just a short, quick throw like third. So I was kind of surprised at how my arm was out in the outfield.

Cole: Assuming you are still in the Rangers' organization past this trading deadline, can you talk about being able to play first base and right field? Obviously with Adrian Beltre manning third base, there isn't a clear hole at your natural position. What are your thoughts on the Rangers expanding your versatility?

Olt: Definitely. I've said that. And I'm happy that Jon Daniels came up and said that he wanted me to play first base and right field. It's good for me. I definitely think it's going to help me get to the big leagues faster, so it's something that I'm definitely going to work on.

Cole: When did Daniels tell you that?

Olt: In the offseason and during spring training.

Cole: So you weren't at all surprised when they put you in right field.

Olt: No. Tingler called me and said, ‘Make sure you have the first base and outfield glove for spring training.' Yeah, I knew it was coming. The first half of the season, I didn't play outfield just because we were trying to clinch that first half, and we weren't really exploring things yet.

Cole: Yeah, it seems like a number of prospects are expanding their versatility now that you guys already have a postseason spot locked up.

Olt: Yeah, which is good. It's good that we can do that now. It's not like we're doing it just for fun. But there are a lot of guys––Leury (Garcia) is playing in the outfield, and he's doing well. Ryan Strausborger is playing second base. They all look natural, so it's not a bad thing.

Cole: Because you were injured around midseason last year, you were able to attend the Futures Game while rehabbing in Arizona, although you obviously didn't play in it. Tell me what the experience was like, being able to play in it this season.

Olt: Yeah, when I was there last year, I definitely said that it's something I wanted to do next year. To be there was a cool taste of the big leagues. Everything that happened there was stuff that happens in the big leagues. To be a part of a crowd like that was something that I really want to get back up there for. It helped me get motivated to finish this season strong.

Cole: What was it like to go there with your Frisco teammate and infield-mate Jurickson Profar?

Olt: It was good. It's fun to watch him play––especially in a situation like that. He's got no fear. He just goes out there, and it's like just another game for him. So it's fun to watch that. It helps everyone play. I look at him, and I see that it's just another game to him, so I take it like that too.

Cole: I know they had Profar mic'd up for the game, and he said something to you while rounding third base after his first-inning home run. What did he say to you?

Olt: He said, ‘I told you. I told you.'

Cole: Did he actually tell you that he was going to hit a home run?

Olt: We always joked around about it. I think we probably made a couple bets about it, but he doesn't remember any of them (laughs). But he did tell me. He always tells me that he's going to hit a home run. Every day, he tells me that he's going to hit a home run––even today.

Cole: You also played first base in that game after starting it at third.

Olt: Yeah, I liked it. I was happy they were able to give me the opportunity to play the whole game. I felt good. I'm happy that I had some games over at first so I wasn't thrown into the woods with it.

Cole: You've heard this question from everybody at this point. But with all the trade rumors flying around, how easy or difficult is it to block everything out and just focus on yourself and your game?

Olt: It has been easy because I dealt with it last year. I dealt with it in the offseason. Everything that goes on, I just think of it as rumors. I always get calls from people saying that they hear my name and this or that. That's just normal––friends and the guys here. Everyone hears everything.

But if you start focusing on it––it doesn't make any sense to focus on it because last year everyone was saying ‘done deal, done deal, done deal.' And then nothing happened. So I don't focus on any of it.

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