In November, itmade little sense to Lyle Overbay: Why on earth did the Blue Jays want him sobadly? After ballyhooed rookie Prince Fielder made him expendable at first basein Milwaukee, the 29-year-old Overbay spent the start of his off-season at homein 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 EricHinske, the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year, at the position. "I didn't see atall how I fit in [in Toronto]," Overbay says. "Would they move Hinskefor me? Then I found out that [Blue Jays general manager] J.P. Ricciardi usedto work for Billy Beane in Oakland, and it made sense. I've always heard thatthose moneyball guys like what I do."
Overbay's career.373 on-base percentage and his pickiness at the plate (he saw 3.97 pitches perappearance last season, 0.23 above the league average) make him a favorite ofdiscriminating statheads like Ricciardi, who's had his eye on Overbay since hebecame the Diamondbacks' starter in '03. Flush with cash after ownership, in aneffort to stay competitive with the Yankees and the Red Sox, upped the payrollfrom $50 million in 2005 to nearly $80 million this season, Ricciardi nabbedOverbay on Dec. 7 as part of an extreme makeover, which includes moving Hinsketo 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, inkedGold Glove catcher Bengie Molina, 31, to a one-year, $5 million deal and tradedfor Arizona's All-Star third baseman, Troy Glaus, 29.
"Like Ryanand Burnett, we think Overbay is just entering the prime of his career, andwe're thrilled to have him the next three years," says Ricciardi, who paida steep price for the slick-fielding first baseman, dealing away promisingrighthander Dave Bush, minor league lefty Zach Jackson and outfielder GabeGross. "Overbay and Glaus make our lineup much deeper: Around them we havefour first-round draft picks under 30 [centerfielder Vernon Wells, 27;shortstop Russ Adams, 25; second baseman Aaron Hill, 24; and leftfielder AlexRios, 25] who are ready to have big years too."
In righty RoyHalladay, 28, who was leading the league in ERA before breaking his left leglast July, and Burnett, who ranked sixth in the NL in strikeouts per nineinnings (8.53), the Blue Jays have a front-of-the-rotation duo that rivals anyin baseball. Whether the offense, which ranked fifth in the league in runs and10th in slugging, remains a worthy complement to the pitching hinges largely onwhether Overbay gets on regularly in front of Glaus, whose 37 homers last yearranked second among third basemen. Overbay, who led the majors with 53 doublesin '04, should thrive at Rogers Centre, a cavernous stadium made for gap-to-gaphitters. With his fluid, lefthanded stroke he is close to a clone of hischildhood hero, John Olerud, a Washington State alum who was an All-Star firstbaseman for the Blue Jays' championship teams of 1992 and '93. "I grew uptrying 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 offew words, I'm kind of reserved, and now I've ended up in Toronto. But I've gota long, long way to go to match what he accomplished."
Overbay had abreakout season in '04, hitting .301 with a .385 on-base percentage and 83RBIs, but last year, with the 21-year-old Fielder gobbling up plateappearances, his production dipped. "I started pressing as I was lookingover my shoulder," Overbay says. "I have peace of mind here knowing thejob is mine, and it means a lot to me that the front office did so much to getme here."
For Toronto tobreak through in the AL East and reach the playoffs for the first time since1993, the pricey new Jays will have to pay off. "If Halladay is healthylast year, I think we win 85, 88 games," Ricciardi says. "I think we'rebetter this year, but this is the strongest division in baseball--three teamscould win 90 games--and the Yankees and Red Sox are still the teams to beat. Westill have our work cut out for us."
Last year withthe Angels, righthanded-hitting catcher Bengie Molina batted .393 againstlefties--tops in the AL--with seven home runs and 28 RBIs. Against righties:.253, 8, 41.
a modest proposal
The Blue Jays arewell-suited for an offense-defense platoon at shortstop. Last seasonrighthanders Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett ranked fifth and eighth in themajors, respectively, in ground ball--to--fly ball ratio among pitchers whothrew at least 140 innings, while lefties Ted Lilly and Gustavo Chacin inducemore fly balls. Using defensive specialist John McDonald (right), a righthandedhitter, when Halladay and Burnett are on the mound could slice a quarter of arun off their ERAs, while Lilly, Chacin and righty Josh Towers stand to gainmore if the superior bat of lefty-swinging Russ Adams is in the lineup
projected roster with 2005 statistics
third in ALEast
third season withToronto
TROY GLAUS [Newacquisition]
LYLE OVERBAY [Newacquisition]
BENGIE MOLINA[New acquisition]
2814361.142.43 LH Scott Schoeneweis 343 3 4 1 1.39 3.32 RH Jason Frasor 182 3 5 1 1.27 3.25
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer ...
Two years removedfrom Tommy John surgery, righthander Dustin McGowan, the organization's bestpitching prospect, is ready to help the Blue Jays. Armed with a fastball thathits 96 mph, McGowan, 24, will start the season at Triple A Syracuse, but he'slikely to be pitching out of Toronto's bullpen before too long. "For apower pitcher, he's got quite a changeup," says Jays manager John Gibbons."Everything is there."
IF AT FIRST ... Overbay slumped last year when his playing time was cut, but the Jays believe he's primed to make a comeback.
ROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME (MCDONALD)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (MCGOWAN)