As documentarian Ken Burns noted, baseball is the one game in which the defense -- not the offense -- possesses the ball. With this in mind, MiLB.com continues its "Defensive Gems" series. Over the next five weeks, we will feature a top prospect at each position who also happens to be an elite defender. In deciding which players to focus on, this reporter polled six scouting directors and relied on his own research. We move to third base, where the Cubs' Christian Villanueva, the Royals' Cheslor Cuthbert and the Rays' Tyler Goeddel were narrowly edged by the Rangers' Mike Olt.
Perhaps the hardest play at the hot corner is when the baseball is the coldest. That is to say, hit the slowest.
"I have gotten to the point where I like to almost bait [batters] into that," Olt said. "I definitely know before the game starts who's a speed guy, a slap guy, who's looking to make plays like that, so I study a little bit. I can kind of read them and hopefully get them a little bit fooled [to] think that I'm not paying attention.
"I'm constantly moving in and out, trying to [assess] different situations. I think third base is all reaction and reading."
Olt -- MLB.com's second-ranked third baseman and 22nd-ranked prospect -- executes this particular play with regularity. Whether a leadoff man is trying to half-swing his way on or a second-place hitter is squaring to bunt down the line, he's always ready.
But then so is Adrian Beltre, the man entrenched at the position in Texas, thanks to his past (coming off consecutive Gold Glove Awards, with four overall) and his club-friendly contract (signed for three more seasons). How is Olt, a 24-year-old with zero Triple-A experience and 100 innings in the Majors, supposed to compete with that?
"Adrian Beltre is the best defensive third baseman I have ever seen. That was what was cool about [being called up] last year," said Olt, who is working at first base and right field in Spring Training, trying to crack his first Opening Day roster. "I was really able to just watch him play, kind of see how he went about his work and get his drills in, the way he slows the game down. I would love to be somewhat as good as him down the road. That's how good he is."
Move past Olt's modesty, however, to find that he can be something like Beltre.
"Olt is a big man who moves with fluidity and agility, so he's got range and first-step quickness and can make those tough plays on the move and throw with a plus arm and accuracy from different angles," Rangers scouting director Josh Boyd says. "He has Gold Glove potential."
Quick movements? Check. Strong arm? Check. What else?
"He has steady hands," an admiring National League scout said. "Maybe not Scott Rolen's, but as close as I've seen recently."
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And to think a wrist injury pushed Olt to third base in the first place. It cost the then-University of Connecticut sophomore all but two April games in 2009 and, more significantly, created an opening for a competitive teammate.
"Early on in my freshman year, in the fall and beginning of the spring, I was playing third base because he was a freshman All-American shortstop and he had pretty much solidified himself there," fellow former UConn infielder Nick Ahmed, now the D-backs' No. 7 prospect, said. "I got a little bit of time at third, went back and forth with another guy, and then Mike ended up getting hurt unfortunately ... so I went to play short. Then when he got healthy, he went to third.
"He was good [at short]. He was bigger than me and he had a good arm, some good hands and good feet, but his third base ability was pretty unbelievable. His reactions and the diving plays and barehanded plays he makes -- I think he's a little bit better of a third baseman than he was a shortstop."
That took time. Olt actually committed four errors at short as a freshman before combining for 35 at third over his sophomore and junior campaigns.
Said Olt, who wasn't disappointed about the switch then or now: "That's where [UConn] thought I would play at the next level."
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Which brings us back to the slow roller.
Picture Olt as a new pro in 2010. He signed 10 days after the Rangers took him with the 49th pick in the Draft, then landed at short-season Spokane, spending many of his 69 games there adjusting to how the ball impacted wood and ricocheted with varying speed -- sometimes fast, sometimes not -- in his direction. He had timed his actions to the aluminum bats in college and now needed to adjust.
Maybe it's no coincidence that Steve Buechele returned to Texas the same year Olt arrived. The coach played 11 Major League seasons at Olt's position, eight of them for the Rangers, and has imparted on his pupil three steps for defensive success: position yourself correctly pre-pitch, read the ball as its thrown and struck and make a decisive and efficient first step.
With Buechele as his skipper at Double-A Frisco last season, Olt made only 11 errors, the second-fewest among Texas League third basemen who played at least 75 games. Of course, many miscues on the left side of the infield occur when the defender has to charge the ball, field it on the run and -- increasing the degree of difficulty even more -- make a throw without both cleats planted in the grass. So little time to spare, there's a rush to grope for the ball where it isn't or, worse, sling it into the first-base grandstand.
"I have never seen a third baseman field the slow roller better than Mike Olt," said RoughRiders shortstop Guilder Rodriguez, 29, and a veteran of 11 Minor League seasons. "Some people see Mike and they ask, 'How old is he? 30? 31?' When he makes these plays, he looks older because of his confidence."
You might even say he resembles the 33-year-old Beltre.
"I don't know how I got to be able to make that play. There's really no practice. I just kind of do it. That was a little bit natural. I always liked using my bare hand, even at shortstop," Olt said, building to a deep laugh, "so I think that became a little bit easier because I was allowed to do it at third base."