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Olt has eyes on the prize: Third-base job

Olt has eyes on the prize: Third-base job

Olt has eyes on the prize: Third-base job

MESA, Ariz. -- On a sun-kissed morning, Mike Olt and two of the Cubs' Minor League coaches were working out on Field 2 at Fitch Park. There was one autograph seeker hovering nearby, but no other players and no pressure.

"I'm just enjoying being out here," Olt said later, sitting at a picnic table outside the Cubs' complex. "It's fun to be on a field and working on stuff. Right now, I'm enjoying hitting."

Olt couldn't say that much this year. A first-round pick by the Rangers in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, the 25-year-old began this season at Triple-A Round Rock and was batting .139 on April 25 when he asked for some help. In November 2012, he was hit in the head while playing in the Dominican Winter League and was having problems with his vision.

"My depth perception was off," said the Cubs' No. 5-ranked prospect, according to MLB.com. "It got to be a little dangerous. I missed a ball -- the time I figured out I knew I had a problem was on a steal. I was covering third, and there was a perfect throw to me, and I missed the ball and it hit me right in the chest. I was like, 'This is getting dangerous.'

"Texas did a great job understanding. They knew I was struggling. I kept playing through. I was nervous that people would think I was making an excuse for how I was playing. Texas, they knew me, and they did a great job trusting me."

He saw several specialists, and he finally returned to play June 3. On July 21, he was batting .213 for the season, and had just gone 2-for-3 against the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa team, hitting a double and a three-run homer in a 3-0 win. Olt's name was mentioned in trade rumors the year before when the Rangers acquired Ryan Dempster and Geovany Soto from the Cubs. At that time, Olt was batting .288, and Texas wasn't going to part with the third baseman.

"This year was weird," Olt said. "We were playing Iowa, and [a deal] almost happened. I came in and [my teammates] were playing a joke on me and had my bag kind of packed. I said, 'What's going on?' They said, 'It's a pretty much done deal.' I said, 'OK, I guess I'll just walk over to the other side.' But it didn't happen that day.

"We finished the series, and I went to Memphis. We had an 11-hour bus ride to Memphis, got off the bus, got to the field, and [this year's trade] was on TV. I'm like, 'What's going on?' I got a bunch of texts saying, 'Congratulations.' I didn't have that good a week and didn't think I was Player of the Week. I didn't know what they were talking about."

Then he got the official word. The Cubs and Rangers had worked out a deal, and this time, Matt Garza was headed to Texas in exchange for Olt and Minor League pitchers Justin Grimm and C.J. Edwards. The Rangers also sent Neil Ramirez to the Cubs on Aug. 23 to complete the trade.

"The next morning, I got on a flight and went home and packed up my car and went on another flight," Olt said. "I missed my flight to Iowa. Then I got there at 6, 6:15 [p.m.] and played in that game. It was a crazy time. Once it settled down and I got a chance to take a breath, I realized it was a great spot for me."

It could be a very beneficial move for Olt. He could be the Cubs' starting third baseman in 2014.

Chicago used six different third basemen in 2013, and they combined to bat .221, the lowest at that position in the National League. They also combined to hit 30 home runs, second best in the NL. Luis Valbuena finished with the most at-bats there with 303. The team had re-signed Ian Stewart in the offseason, but he struggled with injuries in Spring Training and was eventually released on June 25 after batting .168 for Iowa and criticizing the Cubs and then-manager Dale Sveum on Twitter.

Olt has waited his turn with the Rangers behind Adrian Beltre. Now, there's an opening.

"It's going to be a different experience for me [this offseason], because in years past, I trained as hard as I could train, but I knew Adrian Beltre would be at third base," he said. "This year, it's different, knowing I have a better shot of making a spot on the roster."

He had blisters on his hands to prove he's serious. This month, Olt worked out at Fitch Park with Minor League hitting coordinator Anthony Iapoce and coach Oscar Bernard, but he did not play in any of the Cubs' instructional league games. Olt returned to his home in Connecticut on Oct. 7, but he was eager to return to Arizona to work out at the team's new Spring Training facility. He's found a place to stay near the west Mesa complex and figures he'll get more done in the desert than on the East Coast, especially if it snows.

Olt can't wait to get back on the field, because he can see clearly again.

"We still don't know the exact story," he said of the link between getting hit in winter ball and his vision problems. "After I got hit, my vision wasn't blurry at first, but eventually, as time went on, it got a little more blurry when I would blink. It finally got to a point where I said something.

"Texas did a great job getting me to every doctor they could to figure it out. We got to a point where we know what to do and we know how to control it, and I've been out here [in Arizona], and it's been night and day since last year when I was out here. It makes me feel a lot better knowing I'm out here and I don't have any problems with my eyes, just little things."

He's now doing exercises for his eyes and taking allergy medication.

"They explained it like when you have a hurt arm, you rehab your arm," Olt said. "Let's say my eye was hurt, and I wasn't training at all. That's part of it. Allergies were part of it. My eye wasn't producing enough fluid to flush out some of the allergies. We got a special allergy drop right now."

Olt had headaches the first week after he was hit, but nothing after that and no real side effects of a concussion, except a tear duct may have shifted. Being in Arizona for a few days earlier this month was a test to see if his allergy medication was working, and it passed.

Being on the field with Iapoce and Bernard helped, too. Olt was ranked 22nd prior to the 2013 season on MLB.com's list of top prospects. In Mesa, he started to feel like that hitter again.

"It's a different feeling, and the fact I know how it feels, it's easier to sleep at night," he said.

The process created a lot of restless days and nights. It was tough to hit or field when he could only see with one eye.

"It was hard, because we couldn't figure out what was going on," Olt said. "I'm seeing all these doctors, and they're saying my eyes are good. I knew my eyes were OK, but there was something else that I knew was wrong. The fact that we figured it out, it's been a whole lot better."

There are no guarantees that Olt will be at third for the Cubs on Opening Day. One thing is certain is that he'll be competing for the spot.

"They're going to bring in guys," he said. "They have good guys here. Theo [Epstein, president of baseball operations] is not going to sit back. It's going to be good competition. I'm excited for the challenge."

Now, Olt can see an opportunity.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["prospect" ] }
{"event":["prospect" ] }