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Keys to the Jays 2008 Season, Part III -- Lyle Overbay

For Part I of this series, focusing on Vernon Wells, click here . For Part II of this series, focusing on the Jays' 5th Starter, click here .

The Jays acquired Lyle Overbay in the offseason prior to the 2006 season. Overbay had been a big fan favorite in Milwaukee and was still playing for peanuts, but the Brewers had to move him to make room for next big thing Prince Fielder and the Jays gave a fair price for Lyle: Control Artist SP David Bush, lefthanded-hitting outfielder Gabriel Gross, and young southpaw hurler Zach Jackson. Reaction to the deal was mixed, but Lyle won Toronto fans over with a fantastic season, going .312/.372/.508 when not intercepting bridal bouquets and setting career highs in Batting Average, HR, RBI, Slugging, and OPS. Lyle hit 46 doubles, 22 dingers, and generally made life miserable for opposing hitters.

Going into 2007, expectations were high for Lyle. Some projection systems had Lyle projected to be the best hitter on the Jays, and the Jays themselves awarded Lyle with a 4-year contract extension that bought out his 2 remaining arbitration seasons and his first 2 free-agent seasons. The season, though, turned out to be an incredibly frustrating one, as Lyle began the season very slowly, unused to batting 2nd in the order, and just when he started to heat up, was struck on the right hand by a pitch from John Danks, breaking his right hand. Lyle required surgery, but when he returned in July, he wasn't able to recover his swing, and was largely ineffective the rest of the season, ending the season with career lows in on-base percentage (.315) and slugging (.391). Lyle's season also ended prematurely, when he admitted he had been playing despite continuing pain and restricted movement in his hand, and the team explained that Lyle required surgery to remove the pins that had been placed in his hand during the first operation.

All reports from both Lyle and the team indicate that his hand has felt much better since the pins were removed, and that he has regained strength and movement. That's good news for the Jays, because I would argue that Lyle's success and return to form is absolutely vital to the Jays chances this season. I say this because the Jays' lineup is very right-heavy and Lyle represents one of the few left-handed threats, especially if you don't expect Stairs to repeat his monster seasono from last year. In addition, even with no regard to handed-ness, Lyle is one of the Jays' best hitters at getting on base, with a career OBP of .362. When healthy, he also provides excellent defense at first base, and his presumptive replacement in the event of injury, Matt Stairs, does not. Lyle's power is also a little underrated, as the 22 home runs and 46 doubles that he put up in his last healthy season is nothing to sneeze at, even for a first baseman.

The one thing that could compensate for an Overbay injury is Adam Lind, who wasn't very effective in 2007, but whi is still regarded as having the potential to be an above-average MLB hitter. However, if Overbay were to miss extended time, Stairs would likely move to 1st base and Lind would get some playing time in leftfield. In a perfect situation, Lind would get all the at-bats against righthanders, and the defensive upgrade of Lind over Stairs would at least partially compensate for the downgrade in defense at first. However, it's not a perfect world, and Reed Johnson would likely get the lion's share of the playing time, which would mean an offensive downgrade even if Stairs can adequately compensate for Lyle. If Lind is absolutely tearing up AAA, he might get more of a shot.

There's no doubt at all that Overbay's season was spoiled by the hand injury - weakness in the lead hand (the lower hand on the bat) absolutely ruins one's swing and saps one's power. I had a friend who suffered a similar injury. The question is whether Lyle, now that he's on the other side of 30, can recover back to his prior effectiveness. Lyle's comparables have not exhibited encouraging aging trends. Here are some projections for Lyle.

Projection        PA  H     2B   HR   BB  AVG    OBP    SLG   BABIP    Iso-P
James           477  120   33   13   51   .282   .361   .456   .321   .174
Chone           532  128   32   14   55   .269   .348   .434   .305   .164
Marcel          502  123   31   14   50   .276   .349   .444   .311   .168
ZIPS            524  124   34   14   55   .264   .343   .431   ---   .167

Judging from these projections, the collective answer appears to be "no." Only James has Lyle over .800 for OPS. As ZIPS projects the average 1st baseman/DH to put up an .844, this is not an encouraging figure. No one expects Lyle's power to really return, though everyone agrees that Lyle will improve in 2008.

I must say, I'm cautiously optimistic about Lyle exceeding these projections substantially. We all know that projection systems can be weak when it comes to projecting return from injury, especially in situations where the player has tried to play through the injury despite obvious pain or restriction in movement or strength. Lyle was one of the more consistent players in baseball before suffering the injury and generally has a good approach at the plate, drawing plenty of walks and hitting lots of line drives.

The injury itself is really the issue, and, as we know, wrist and hand injuries are tough for hitters to bounce back from, and when it does happen, it can take up to a year or more to fully recover. I talked to an orthopedic surgeon friend of mine and he told me all about hamate bone fractures, because that's what I thought Lyle had. It turns out that the reports have not really been clear about Lyle's injury and it's not at all clear that he did suffer a broken hamate bone, so I won't go into any of that. But I did learn afterwards that many problems regarding hand and wrist injuries are the same - they cause significant pain, particularly when the patient tries to grip something tightly. Recovery depends on a few things: 1) the extent of soft tissue damage at the time of injury; 2) the swiftness with which the injury is treated after it occurs; and 3) the dedication to therapy to restore full strength and range of mobility in the hand. Often full grip strength is not restored until 1 year after the injury or more. We know that Lyle had a problem with scar tissue in his hand following the surgery, but he reportedly is feeling better. I would not be surprised if the Lyle we see in 2008 is completely different from the 2007 version, or if Lyle improves as the season goes on. There's no doubt, though that how successful a 2008 campaign Lyle enjoys will go a long way to determining how successful a season the Jays have. As a Lyle fan, I will be rooting for him!