As you may know, the Texas Rangers have a prospect named Mike Olt. He’s really, really good. Baseball America just named him the 11th best prospect in all of baseball in their midseason rankings. The 23-year old is in his first season at Frisco, the Rangers Double-A affiliate, and is hitting .292/.403/.574 with a Double-A leading 22 home runs in 291 at-bats. In last year’s Arizona fall league (a league that also featured Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Will Middlebrooks and Wil Myers), he led the league in home runs with 13 (second most was seven) and had the second highest OPS. Before the Arizona fall league, Olt was tearing up Single-A as well until a broken collarbone limited his year. Essentially, ever since being taken by Texas with the 49th pick of the 2010 draft, Mike Olt has been a menace to minor league pitching.
Recently, the Frisco manager Steve Beuchele had this to say about Olt and Rangers top prospect Jurickson Profar:
“Both of these guys, if you stuck them on a big league field right now, they won’t embarrass themselves and they wouldn’t be scared.”
The Rangers are not in a position where they want or need to put either prospect on a big league field, but that gives you an idea of just how impressive they have been. Combine that mentality with his performance, and Mike Olt will almost certainly be pounding down the door to be on that big league field sometime in 2013.
There is just one catch. Olt plays third base, and the Rangers have their third base situation locked up until 2015, and possibly 2016, in the form of All-Star Adrian Beltre. This creates an issue for Mike Olt, who is not only a big power bat at the plate, he is also a very capable defender at third base.
The Rangers have begun toying with how to solve this issue for Olt, and keep him a Texas Ranger. If he continues to hit the way he is, he’ll force the Rangers hand to find a way to get him into the lineup, even if it’s not at third base. So this season he has played some first base for Frisco too, and even played one game in right field. That is good experience for Olt, and his odds of breaking in with the Rangers at first base or left field or right field are significantly higher than at third base, unless Beltre is injured. However, Olt carries the most value as a third baseman. His value is highest at third base because 1. He’s an excellent defender, and 2. He isn’t so great a hitter that he profiles as an elite first baseman or corner outfielder. First baseman and corner outfielders are typically the best hitters in the game, and also don’t have to be elite defenders. Olt isn’t likely going to be a “best hitter in the game” type, and he is an elite defender. If he can stick at third base, that is where he is most valuable.
So now, the Rangers are at a bit of an impasse with Mike Olt. It seems they aren’t likely to be the team that maximizes his value on the field, yet he is still incredibly valuable, so perhaps the best scenario is for the Rangers to derive value from Mike Olt by using him as a trade chip. That sounds crude, as if Olt isn’t an important piece of the Rangers organization, but even in a trade Olt is an extremely important piece of the Rangers organization.
There have been many MLB trade rumors that the Rangers are interested in trading for Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels, and they have been reported as the favorites to make such a trade. Often, those reports list Olt as the key piece of a deal. An easy comparison for such a deal would be the 2010 Cliff Lee trade that the Rangers made with the Seattle Mariners. A Greinke or Hamels deal would be similar in that both pitchers are free agents after this year, like Lee was, and that they would give the Rangers a much more legitimate starting rotation in the playoffs that Texas is almost certainly going to be in. On the other hand, such a deal that includes Olt would be very, very different.
The key piece in the Cliff Lee trade was Justin Smoak. You wouldn’t know it from his production now, but Smoak was supposed to become one of the best hitters in all of baseball. The kind of scouting reports and hype that Olt is generating now, Smoak had done the same in the minor leagues. There is one difference between Smoak and Olt though, and it is a key difference. Smoak was a first baseman. As we’ve established, an elite hitting third baseman is much more valuable than an elite hitting first baseman. It is exponentially easier to find an elite hitting first baseman than across the diamond at third base. Trading Olt for Greinke or Hamels would be trading a more valuable commodity for what I would argue is a lesser return (give me 2010 Lee over 2012 Greinke or Hamels any day of the week). Additionally, if Greinke or Hamels leaves Texas after 2012 as Lee did in 2010, the Rangers will not receive two draft picks as compensation as they did with Lee. The result of a Greinke or Hamels trade could very well be a big hit to the farm system, two or three months of Greinke or Hamels, and the hope that it was enough to win a World Series. Hope is not a plan.
For the record, I don’t think Texas includes Olt in a trade for Greinke or Hamels. The Rangers front office is smarter than I am, and unless there is some in-house consternation about Olt’s abilities as a big leaguer (which I don’t think there is), that trade doesn’t make sense.
We remain at our impasse. I believe the Rangers should still trade Olt, but the return would need to be much greater than a two or three month rental. Below are some of the targets that I would consider to be a worthy prize for the price of Olt.
Justin Upton – The 24-year old outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks would fit perfectly with the Rangers. The Texas outfield picture is unclear in 2013 with the possibility of Josh Hamilton’s departure, and in 2014 with the possibility of Nelson Cruz and David Murphy leaving in free agency that offseason. Upton is under a reasonable contract through the 2015 season. In the report that Upton could be available, it was stated that Arizona may look for a third baseman. While it is unlikely that Arizona trades their All-Star, former MVP candidate slugger, it seems an Upton trade headlined by Mike Olt with a few additional solid prospects from Texas would be a match made in heaven.
Matt Garza – The Rangers have had interest in Garza before. While not as accomplished a pitcher as Greinke or Hamels, he is one thing that they are not: controllable in 2013. Garza has one year of arbitration remaining before he hits free agency, meaning if he were to become a Ranger in 2012 he would also be a Ranger in 2013. If he left after 2013 in free agency, the Rangers would receive two draft picks as compensation at that point. The 28-year old Garza isn’t lighting the world on fire for the Chicago Cubs this year, but he has been one of the league’s most consistent pitchers of the last four years, has succeeded against the AL East, and has been successful in the playoffs. With the Cubs in a rebuilding phase, an Olt for Garza swap may make sense, and the Rangers probably would not have to include many other high-ranked prospects.
Josh Johnson – This possible trade target is more difficult for me to speculate on with certainty, given the information available. Johnson has had shoulder injuries in the past, and shoulder injuries for pitchers are scary and can have long-term effects. Without the full medical diagnosis, I can’t endorse this idea with absolute certainty. What I do know is that Johnson is 28 years old, under contract in 2013 for $13.75 million, and prior to his injury issues was a perennial Cy Young candidate and one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League. After a rough start to the 2012 season, Johnson posted a 1.93 ERA in 5 starts in June, holding opposing hitters to a .205 batting average while striking out 8.8 batters per nine innings. If that’s the level he can pitch at again, in good health, I’m in.
The Mike Olt/Adrian Beltre situation is a microcosm of the strength of the Texas Rangers organization. They have achieved the rare balance of accomplishing the highest levels of success at the big league level, while still maintaining one of the league’s strongest farm systems. This combination results in problems like what the Rangers have with what to do with Olt, and those are the best kinds of problems to have. Those problems give a team a valuable asset: options. The Rangers have their options, and as the market develops, I believe they will exercise them, capitalizing on their investments to always move the organization one step closer to the final goal of winning a World Series.
Join in the conversation with Peter on Twitter by following him @FutureGM