There were about 90 hitters assigned to the Arizona Fall League this year, many of them among the game’s best prospects. One man leads the league in OPS (1.225), slug (.800), home runs (13, with nobody else in the league at more than seven), total bases (76), and RBI (40 in 24 games).
He’s the reigning AFL Player of the Week.
And he won the award the previous week, too.
Rangers third base prospect Mike Olt sits at .347/.425/.800 through 95 at-bats, with only days left in the AFL season. He’s been on a run reminiscent of the one another former Rangers third base prospect had in the prospect league, nine years ago.
Mark Teixeira had an AFL slash of .333/.437/.616 in 2002, with seven home runs over 99 at-bats that wrapped up his first full pro season, one that had been cut in half due to a fluke injury, just as Olt’s was this year.
At the time, Teixeira was a third baseman, having played the position at Georgia Tech and then in 2002 with Charlotte and Tulsa and the AFL’s Peoria Javelinas. He was adequate at the position, and Texas believed he would be good enough to figure in a solid everyday player there.
But the club had just broken Hank Blalock in at third base the year before – and Blalock was half a year younger, and widely considered the top hitting prospect in baseball when he arrived. Teixeira was not going to play third for Texas.
The Rangers broke Teixeira in at first base (where Rafael Palmeiro was being phased out) in 2003, playing him 116 times at the position (plus 15 games at third, 14 in left field, 11 in right field, and five at DH).
Olt is not the transcendent hitting prospect that Teixeira was.
And Teixeira was not nearly the defender at third base that Olt is.
But I’ve been thinking about this idea some have that Olt is a lock to be traded, because his value as a plus defender at third base would be emasculated by a shift to the less important position across the diamond.
We don’t yet know what Mitch Moreland is. But what if he struggles again in 2012? Or what if a team shopping a frontline starting pitcher insists on Moreland in a deal that makes sense for Texas?
Ichiro Suzuki broke in as a Mariner in right field rather than center because of Mike Cameron, even though he wasn’t a classic corner outfielder offensively.
A 2011 example, on a smaller scale: Mike Trout working his way in on an outfield corner more often than in center.
Was left field really the ideal spot for Albert Pujols defensively, rather than third base (Placido Polanco and then Scott Rolen) or first (Mark McGwire and then Tino Martinez)?
The presence of Grady Sizemore meant that Franklin Gutierrez broke into the big leagues primarily in right field, rather than in center.
If it weren’t for Mike Lowell, Florida likely would have broken Miguel Cabrera in as a third baseman, not a left fielder.
Because of Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera started his big league career at second base.
Because of Orlando Cabrera, Alexei Ramirez was initially a second baseman as well.
And let’s not forget the one-game experiment that Texas launched with Adrian Gonzalez in right field, just to see if there was another way to get his bat into the Teixeira-led lineup.
Here’s the thing: I’m certainly not opposed to trading Olt. Nobody is untouchable, and he’s going to be ready for the big leagues years long before Adrian Beltre’s tenure here expires. He might be ready before the 2012 season is over. It’s a pretty clear case of a great player blocking a great prospect.
But this is a kid with middle-of-the-lineup potential who was headed for Carolina League MVP honors when he went down with a broken collarbone in early June, and seems poised to land the AFL MVP award as well. (One more home run and he’ll tie the all-time AFL mark of 14, set by Brandon Wood in 2005.) There’s still some swing-and-miss in the bat (Teixeira’s, too), but Olt has the chance to be a versatile, productive offensive player (he led the Carolina League in walks when he broke his collarbone) whose plus tools at third base could certainly translate to plus tools at first as well.
We all remember what it’s like, from the Teixeira days, to have a weapon on defense at first.
Left field is a possibility for Olt, too. No questions about the athleticism or arm strength, and the quickness is there, but the footspeed, a tick below average, could be an issue.
All those things led Texas to give Teixeira and Gonzalez looks on the outfield corners. Brief looks.
That’s not to say Olt couldn’t do it. Pujols and Cabrera did it early on. Matt Holliday moved from third base to the outfield. Paul Konerko was raised by the Dodgers as a third base bat, but his defensive limitations – and the presence of Beltre, whose path to the big leagues was a half-step behind Konerko’s in the Los Angeles system – led to rookie work in left field and first base in addition to third.
Don’t misunderstand me: Olt is a better third baseman than Holliday or Konerko was. Far better. No prospect is Adrian Beltre’s defensive equal, but Olt is probably right there with Florida’s Matt Dominguez as far as hot corner chops are concerned throughout minor league baseball. And Olt is a massively more promising hitter than Dominguez is.
If you believe Olt’s value is greater as a trade piece than it would be as a Texas Ranger, because of the Beltre roadblock, that’s fine. But that was probably true with Gonzalez as well (especially since the decision to trade him came three years before Teixeira could be a free agent), and he was traded badly. Moving Travis Hafner after the 2002 season made sense (with Teixeira ready and Palmeiro still around), but he wasn’t traded particularly well, either.
Now, I trust Jon Daniels more on the trade front than I trusted him three months into the job (when he traded Gonzalez) and more than any other Rangers GM before him – Kevin Goldstein remarked at one point this year that Daniels is among the best in baseball at knowing when to deal his prospects – but even if 1B Mike Olt (or LF Mike Olt) is a less valuable commodity than 3B Mike Olt, shouldn’t we leave room for the possibility that the Rangers believe Olt, who has proved in 2011 that his ability to play premium defensive may be matched by an ability to do lots of damage offensively, could be a heck of an answer at first base should Moreland give the club an opportunity to add an impact starting pitcher . . . or should Moreland (who will be evaluated later this month for possible surgery to relieve right wrist tendinitis) fail to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore season?
Imagine a defensive infield featuring Beltre and Olt on the corners (you don’t have to trust me on Olt’s ability with the glove – read Goldstein or Baseball America or Jason Parks or Jason Cole), and Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler up the middle.
You might prefer to imagine Olt in another uniform, playing third base at a level just short of Beltre, having moved in a deal making Texas stronger on the mound. Trading Olt doesn’t have to be a bad thing, no matter what he becomes. Justin Smoak can have the same career as Adrian Gonzalez, and the trade that sent Smoak away won’t hurt anywhere near as much as the one that made AG a Padre.
Edinson Volquez vs. John Danks.
If there’s something to one opposing Class A manager who told Baseball America a few months ago that Olt’s Myrtle Beach season reminded him of Evan Longoria’s first full minor league season, is that someone you want to ship away just because his defensive value wouldn’t be exploited at first as much as it would be at third?
I have no idea how other teams value Moreland vs. Olt, setting aside the positional needs those clubs might have, or the handedness at the plate. There are likely some teams that would prefer Moreland, others who would ask first for Olt, who arrived in pro ball as the Rangers’ second first-round pick in 2010 as an outstanding defender with plus power, and has since demonstrated a tremendous approach at the plate, using all fields and showing signs of uncommon selectivity despite holes in the swing.
And for that matter, I don’t know who Texas values more, long-term, between the two. But I’ve never trusted the organization’s self-evaluation process more than I do now.
I’m OK if Olt moves on in a deal that reshapes that way this team lines up its playoff rotation.
But I’m also OK if, two years from now, we’re looking at the most complete first baseman this club has had since Teixeira.
That moment when you send out a report and, seconds later, remember another point you meant to make . . . .
For those of you who believe Mike Olt has to be traded, because his value as a third base asset is greater than it would be as a Rangers first baseman or left fielder:
Have you similarly decided that Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar (you know, the 18-year-old shortstop whom one scout described to Peter Gammons this summer, perhaps hyperbolically, as having “Hanley Ramirez ability — minus speed — and Pedroia makeup”) can’t both be in the Texas lineup, that one will have to go?