Many Pirates fans were angry when the team signed Lyle Overbay to a one-year, $5 million contract earlier this week. As an example, the Overbay thread over at Bucs Dugout was up to 906 comments at the time this article was published. Many referred to the signing as a typical Dave Littlefield move. In other words, spending decent money on a past-his-prime veteran who will likely take playing time away from younger players with upside. I am not going to dispute that viewpoint, because I think it is a fairly accurate way to look at the situation. But I don’t think Overbay’s addition should necessarily keep those younger players off the field.
Before the Overbay signing, the Pirates were probably going to start Garrett Jones at first base while platooning John Bowker and Matt Diaz in right field. Steve Pearce also had the chance to get some playing time at first against left-handed pitchers. With Overbay’s addition, he is expected to play every day at first while Jones shifts to right to platoon with Diaz. Thus, Bowker and Pearce lose out on the chance for regular playing time.
There are multiple aspects of this situation to consider before allocating playing time. We must look at expected performance in 2011. The ZiPS projection system is probably the best source of 2011 projections currently available, so we will start there. ZiPS projects Overbay, Bowker, Jones and Pearce to be very similar hitters next year. My own personal projections have Overbay as a step above the rest of the group, a difference of around one win. Overbay is probably a better fielder as well, although it is difficult to quantify the exact difference. For our purposes, let’s estimate that Overbay is a marginal upgrade on the other three.
We also must consider the likelihood that a player may greatly outperform his projection, as well as the probability that he may totally collapse. To determine this we should look at things like age, past performance and sample size. For example, Overbay will turn 34 in January. At that age, and as a big first baseman, he has the potential to collapse at any time. Think Ryan Church in 2010. That being said, Bowker and Pearce (both age 27) also have a decent chance of having a disastrous 2011 season, as they have never proven that they can hit major league pitching. We have a small sample of prior performance to analyze, so we are projecting based on limited information. Think Jeff Clement in 2010. There is also the chance that a player greatly outperforms his projection. Overbay had a .363 wOBA in 2009, and he has a career wOBA of .349. Those are not monster numbers, but they are above average and well above what the Pirates received from first base and right field in 2010. We should not expect him to duplicate that performance, but we at least know he is capable of producing at that level against major league pitching. Bowker and Pearce, on the other hand, have never come close to that type of performance at this level. But they have destroyed Triple-A pitching for extended stretches (albeit mostly in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in Bowker’s case) and they are young enough that it is certainly possible for them to suddenly figure out the big leagues.
I do not know how to accurately assign a probability to Bowker and/or Pearce breaking out in 2011, or Overbay collapsing, or vice versa. Baseball Prospectus generally publishes these types of calculations with their PECOTA projection system closer to the start of the season, so maybe we will have a better idea at that point. Subjectively, I can say that I would not be surprised if Overbay posted a wOBA anywhere between .300 and .360. Of course, I can probably say the same thing for both Bowker and Pearce. Since Bowker and Pearce are both much younger than Overbay and under team control for longer than one year, there is also added value in giving those players a chance to play regularly for an extended period. In other words, people are right to be upset with the Overbay signing if it means decreased playing time for Bowker and Pearce.
However, there should still be an opportunity for Bowker and Pearce to play regularly. First of all, Pearce should be given a chance to platoon with Overbay at first. Overbay has mostly struggled against left-handed pitchers in his career, and there is no reason to waste at-bats trying to break him of that trend. That means Jones is the one keeping Bowker off the field. And I have to wonder what purpose it serves to keep Jones in the lineup.
Here is Jones’ production over the past five years, according to Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA).
Here is Bowker’s performance over the same period. Keep in mind that his Triple-A time in the Giants’ organization was spent in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Jones had a couple of decent years at Triple-A in his age 26 and 27 seasons. He had an excellent year at age 28, including three fantastic months at the major league level. At age 29, he received a full season of at-bats with the Pirates, and failed. He will be 30-years-old in 2011, with one year of impact performance on his résumé, and little reason to expect him to return to that level. Bowker is three years younger, has torched Triple-A three of the past four seasons, and has never really received an extended look at the major league level.
Bowker and Pearce have the chance of being impact bats for the Pirates, based on their age and extended runs of Triple-A success. They are also very risky, unproven players who could fall flat on their faces. Overbay is a proven player who has put up very good offensive numbers at various times in his career. He is also 34, and coming off a down year. He could easily collapse in 2011. Jones has little chance of making an impact, and is probably just as likely to collapse as any of the other options. He has just as much downside as the next guy, but without the upside.
Pearce and Overbay should platoon at first base. Diaz and Bowker should platoon in right field. Jones should join Ryan Doumit on the trading block.