- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In November, it made little sense to Lyle Overbay: Why on earth did the Blue Jays want him so badly? After ballyhooed rookie Prince Fielder made him expendable at first base in Milwaukee, the 29-year-old Overbay spent the start of his off-season at home in Centralia, Wash., tracking reports that two teams coveted him: the Red Sox, who were desperate to fill their vacancy at first, and Toronto, which had Eric Hinske, the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year, at the position. "I didn't see at all how I fit in [in Toronto]," Overbay says. "Would they move Hinske for me? Then I found out that [Blue Jays general manager] J.P. Ricciardi used to work for Billy Beane in Oakland, and it made sense. I've always heard that those moneyball guys like what I do."
Overbay's career .373 on-base percentage and his pickiness at the plate (he saw 3.97 pitches per appearance last season, 0.23 above the league average) make him a favorite of discriminating statheads like Ricciardi, who's had his eye on Overbay since he became the Diamondbacks' starter in '03. Flush with cash after ownership, in an effort to stay competitive with the Yankees and the Red Sox, upped the payroll from $50 million in 2005 to nearly $80 million this season, Ricciardi nabbed Overbay on Dec. 7 as part of an extreme makeover, which includes moving Hinske to rightfield. Toronto signed two free-agent pitchers--righthanded starter A.J. Burnett, 29, and lefty closer B.J. Ryan, 30--for a combined $102 million, inked Gold Glove catcher Bengie Molina, 31, to a one-year, $5 million deal and traded for Arizona's All-Star third baseman, Troy Glaus, 29.
"Like Ryan and Burnett, we think Overbay is just entering the prime of his career, and we're thrilled to have him the next three years," says Ricciardi, who paid a steep price for the slick-fielding first baseman, dealing away promising righthander Dave Bush, minor league lefty Zach Jackson and outfielder Gabe Gross. "Overbay and Glaus make our lineup much deeper: Around them we have four first-round draft picks under 30 [centerfielder Vernon Wells, 27; shortstop Russ Adams, 25; second baseman Aaron Hill, 24; and leftfielder Alex Rios, 25] who are ready to have big years too."
In righty Roy Halladay, 28, who was leading the league in ERA before breaking his left leg last July, and Burnett, who ranked sixth in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings (8.53), the Blue Jays have a front-of-the-rotation duo that rivals any in baseball. Whether the offense, which ranked fifth in the league in runs and 10th in slugging, remains a worthy complement to the pitching hinges largely on whether Overbay gets on regularly in front of Glaus, whose 37 homers last year ranked second among third basemen. Overbay, who led the majors with 53 doubles in '04, should thrive at Rogers Centre, a cavernous stadium made for gap-to-gap hitters. With his fluid, lefthanded stroke he is close to a clone of his childhood hero, John Olerud, a Washington State alum who was an All-Star first baseman for the Blue Jays' championship teams of 1992 and '93. "I grew up trying to mimic his swing," says Overbay, a 1999 graduate of Nevada. "There are a lot of similarities--our styles and backgrounds. He's a man of few words, I'm kind of reserved, and now I've ended up in Toronto. But I've got a long, long way to go to match what he accomplished."
Overbay had a breakout season in '04, hitting .301 with a .385 on-base percentage and 83 RBIs, but last year, with the 21-year-old Fielder gobbling up plate appearances, his production dipped. "I started pressing as I was looking over my shoulder," Overbay says. "I have peace of mind here knowing the job is mine, and it means a lot to me that the front office did so much to get me here."
For Toronto to break through in the AL East and reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993, the pricey new Jays will have to pay off. "If Halladay is healthy last year, I think we win 85, 88 games," Ricciardi says. "I think we're better this year, but this is the strongest division in baseball--three teams could win 90 games--and the Yankees and Red Sox are still the teams to beat. We still have our work cut out for us."
The Blue Jays are
well-suited for an offense-defense platoon at shortstop. Last season
righthanders Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett ranked fifth and eighth in the
majors, respectively, in ground ball--to--fly ball ratio among pitchers who
threw at least 140 innings, while lefties Ted Lilly and Gustavo Chacin induce
more fly balls. Using defensive specialist John McDonald (right), a righthanded
hitter, when Halladay and Burnett are on the mound could slice a quarter of a
run off their ERAs, while Lilly, Chacin and righty Josh Towers stand to gain
more if the superior bat of lefty-swinging Russ Adams is in the lineup