Despite having a potentially better in-house option in front of them and despite facing an increasingly tricky 40-man roster situation, the Yankees continue to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks in an attempt to find Mark Teixeira‘s temporary replacement at first base. The latest contestant is Lyle Overbay, 36-year-old lefty swinger who was released earlier this week and gobbled up just as quickly by the Bombers. Juan Rivera had been getting the bulk of the work at first in the last couple weeks, but the signing of Overbay this late in camp suggests the Yankees weren’t as comfortable with that option as they appeared to be. Overbay is a natural first baseman, unlike Rivera, and that surely influenced the now defensive-minded Yankees’ decision to bring him in. Whether or not he’s actually a better option than Rivera? Well, that’s debatable.
Offensively, the Yankees basically have the same player in both Rivera and Overbay. Neither hits for much power anymore, at least not based on what Rivera has shown in camp. This comes with the obligatory “Spring Training stats” grain of salt, but Rivera’s .305/.328/.390 ST slash line isn’t exactly what you would call ideal production from a first baseman. He’s hitting, sure, and there is something to be said for that. Those hits just haven’t led to much: 18 in 59 ABs with only 5 doubles and 5 RBI.
Overbay put up a similarly underwhelming line in Boston’s camp (.220/.327/.341 in 41 ABs), albeit in a slightly different way. He’s always been good at drawing walks (11.3% career BB rate) and continues to display strong pitch recognition skills and patience even without any kind of power to speak of. He also tends to strike out more than Rivera, but his on-base skills make him a bit more of an attractive offensive option when the lack of power is considered. I’m using the term “attractive” a bit loosely in this comparison, as neither Rivera (projected .310 wOBA by ZiPS) nor Overbay (.305) are expected to be even average offensive players this season.
Where Overbay has the advantage is on the defensive side. I mentioned before that he is a natural first baseman and he’s a good one at that. Rivera has held his own out there in camp, but he’s not the type of player who can be counted on to save runs at the position. With Derek Jeter out to start the season and likely to need a lot of rest when he does return, we’re going to get a lot of Eduardo Nunez at shortstop and we all know what comes with that. Overbay’s experience and plus glove skills could come in handy snaring some errant Nunez throws and possibly saving a few runs in the process. In that respect, at least, the Yankees could come close to replicating Teix’s value while he’s out.
The other thing I mentioned at the top of this post was the potentially better in-house first base option to which the Yankees haven’t given much more thought or playing time. That option is Kevin Youkilis, who also has first base experience and has always rated as a very good defensive first baseman. He hasn’t played the position regularly in a few years, but I can’t imagine that’s something you just forget how to do and it would be a way to lessen the injury risk that’s going to be attached to him all season.
Rivera does have positional flexibility working in his favor. His ability to play the outfield, the position he was originally signed to play, and the fact that he’s a much-needed righty bat does make him a more useful long-term option than Overbay. Now that I think about it, though, perhaps the Overbay signing signals that Rivera is going to be the odd man out here. The Yankees are pretty well stocked with righty-hitting outfielders now that they’ve added Wells and Francisco to the mix. There’s going to be platoon action somewhere in the lineup, so why can’t it be at first base? Overbay starts and plays there against RHP with Youkilis at third, and against lefties Youkilis can slide over to play first with someone like Ronnier Mustelier or Jayson Nix playing third.
Does that sound like a better scenario than any one that includes Rivera? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s where the Yankees stand when it comes to filling out their bench this season; just trying to find the right mix of guys who can hopefully be league average. It’s not like Rivera or Overbay are going to put the lineup on their backs and carry them until Teix returns. Maybe the defensive skills are enough to give Overbay the nod and Rivera the ticket outta town.