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All or nothing? Cubs’ Olt looking for solid middle ground in ’15

MESA, Ariz. – The day Mike Olt learned he’d made the club out of camp last spring, a Cubs beat reporter fumbled for the right words to frame a question to the rookie slugger about his hitting style, eventually blurting out:

“Are you an all-or-nothing guy?”

So much for enjoying the moment.

Once Olt took a second to process the tactless insinuation, he patiently responded, talking about his goal to hit better than .275 and try to get on base a lot.

Problem was, that wasn’t the end of the inconvenient topic for last year’s Opening Day third baseman.

Problem was he wound up living it.

Whether it was about the power of suggestion or inexplicable insight by a baseball writer, Olt seemed to do little but strike out or hit home runs, eventually getting buried on the bench, then demoted to Class AAA Iowa on July 22.

Last year coming from another organization and being a young guy you really want to prove yourself,” said Olt, who was acquired from Texas in the Matt Garza trade in 2013. “And you tend to put a lot more pressure on yourself when you do that. This year I feel more comfortable. I worked hard in the off-season. My body feels better than it did last year. All that kind of helps.”

So did talking with first-year Cubs’ sports psychologist Josh Lifrak over the winter, Olt said.

He’s so ready now he’s the clear front-runner to reclaim the third base job as position players officially open spring training this week.

“You can draw your own conclusions,” manager Joe Maddon said of the job battle, “if you look at the long term and the short term. It’s open. Long-term you’re looking at Kris [Bryant] would probably be a more long-term solution. Is he ready now? I don’t know. I haven’t seem him play.”

With Bryant, the top prospect in baseball, likely opening the season at AAA and 2014 third-base incumbent Luis Valbuena traded away last month, it’s a wide open path for Olt – at least short term — to return to the lineup with a redemptive spring.

“With Valbuena gone, I definitely have a better shot to be the everyday third baseman,” Olt said. “But I’ve still got a lot of work to do. You look into stuff like that, but you’ve really got to get out there and start playing again and prove it.”

Prove that there’s a lot more to his offensive game than long balls and misses. By the time he was sent down last summer, Olt had more home runs (12) than singles (10) and had 84 strikeouts. He finished with a .160 average and OPS that barely topped .600.

“You’ve just got to take it all as a learning experience. It took me a while to figure that out,” said Olt, who was one of the top hitting prospects in the game in recent years with Texas. “I felt like I dwelled on it a lot last year and put a lot of pressure on myself. When you think of all the positive things you did and try to get over the negatives, you start to pick up on some things that can really help you from last year.”

He also says, “I feel like I’m in the best shape that I’ve been in, in a long time.”

But this is not an all-or-nothing spring for Olt. Despite Bryant’s substantial shadow as a backdrop for the third-base job, Olt has designs on a long-term place in the big leagues – “I know I belong.”

He’s willing to try some outfield if asked, he said (he hasn’t been asked). And the outfield could be a possibility for Bryant, who will be used out there some this spring, Maddon said.

“I’m not worried about what position they’re going to put us in,” Olt said. “I can’t be thinking about, `I want to move him to the outfield or I want to move to the outfield.” I just want to come in thinking about proving that I’m ready to be there.”