This might be the first time you've thought about Lyle Overbay. Like, really thought about him. Maybe you're young, and you weren't paying attention to his good years. Maybe he's never played for a division rival. But now that Overbay's cooling down after an unlikely start, you'll probably go back to ignoring him. He'll become what he's been for the last few years -- a guy who isn't going to help or hurt your team. Not bad, not good. The water chestnut of first basemen, then.
But he wasn't always like that. From 2004 through 2010 or so, Overbay was a little bit more valuable. He's never made an All-Star team or picked up a 30th-place MVP vote. He led the NL in doubles once, and he shows up on some year-to-year leader boards in defensive stats like "assists" and "put outs," but that's as noisy as his career gets. He's been around for 13 seasons and over 1,300 games, but he's been sitting in the back of the class, never raising his hand, just dutifully taking notes.
Which makes him the perfect player for a little point I've been meaning to make. We'll call it the Lyle Overbay Theory of Prospect Expectations. Here goes:
If a prospect turns out to be an Overbay-quality major leaguer, his team should be absolutely okay with that.
This goes for any prospect. Even the best of the best. If Jurickson Profar is the Overbay of shortstops, or Oscar Taveras becomes the Overbay of outfielders, the Rangers and Cardinals should be mildly disappointed. But mostly okay. Because sometimes -- wacky and wild theory coming, but hear me out -- the best prospects don't even come close to that. I wrote about Ruben Rivera on Wednesday, and it turns out that he was once the #2 prospect in all the land, right above Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones.
Yeah, ha ha, right? Except Rivera was worth almost six wins over his career, more than some of the other guys on the top-100 list, like Josh Booty, Marc Newfield, and Trey Beamon. Ruben Rivera isn't even the worst-case scenario for a prospect. But if the Padres or Yankees could go back in time and flip a switch that turned Rivera into the Overbay of outfielders, they would be giddy to do it.
This comes up now because of a conversation I had on Twitter with Adam J. Morris of Lone Star Ball, in which he mentioned that he took some guff for suggesting Overbay as a possible comp for Justin Smoak when he was a Rangers prospect. When working up historical comparisons that might apply to Brandon Belt, I've also found the existence of Overbay to be pretty useful, even if some Giants fans were dreaming bigger. Overbay is code for "not close to a star, but okay." And okay players are harder to find and keep than you might think.
I'm going to make a list. It will be a long list, but I think it'll help prove my point. Actually … it ended up being so long, it's probably better off on another page entirely. It's a list of every first baseman on Baseball America's top-100 list from 1990 through 2009. Take a bit to drink in some of the names on the list. I, for one, did not know that D.J. Boston existed. You've never lived until you've heard dubstep remixes of Dropkick Murphys. But there are also some really good players on that list, of course.
In all, there are 78 names on the list. There have been 78 first basemen on the BA top-100 list, and you know all of those teams had some big expectations. More importantly, the fans had some serious expectations. It's every fan's right to expect too much from their prospects, after all. And of those 78 names, guess how many accumulated more WAR than Overbay's 18?
Sixteen. Which is 21 percent of the list. Some of them earned their keep as a DH, but just a fifth of them were as valuable as Overbay.
Other first basemen eventually had better careers (Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado, Mark Teixeira) who made the BA list as something other than a first baseman, but that's not the point. Of the 1B-only prospects, Overbay had one of the best careers. Overbay is name that exists on a best-case-scenario spectrum. Don't mess with Lyle Overbay.
Now, some of the names on the list haven't played long enough to accrue the steady two-win seasons that Overbay did. By the ends of their careers, players like Yonder Alonso, Justin Smoak, and Eric Hosmer might push Overbay down to 20th or so on the list. But that doesn't remove the idea of Overbay as a prospect success story.
Or, to put it in relevant terms for today's players, do you think the Mariners would take Overbay for Smoak's career path? Heck, they'd probably trade Jesus Montero if that were a magical way to guarantee it. What about the Royals and Hosmer? Probably. They'd probably be thrilled with Hosmerbay by now.
The moral of the story: If you're reading about a prospect, and the reviewer drops a dreaded "Lyle Overbay" comparison on him, pump your fist and shout a whoop of joy. Because that's a good thing. It's fun to pretend that every prospect is going to be Willie McCovey. But assuming they'll even be Lyle Overbay is pretty danged optimistic.