Rays Pay Up for James Loney

Over the past three seasons, the modus operandi for the Tampa Bay Rays has been to find a one-year solution at first base in the clearance bin of the offseason market. In 2011, that came in the form of adding Casey Kotchman on a minor league deal and watching him produce a 2.4 win season. In 2012, the team upped the budget and spent $7.25M to bring back Carlos Pena a year after he left via free agency, but Pena struggled through a 0.7 win season. Last season, James Loney was brought in on a $2M deal, and turned a profit with a career-best 2.7 win season.

The first base situation has been as much as a revolving door as the closer role has been with the club. Until Fernando Rodney repeated as the team saves leader last season, the team had had a different pitcher leads the team in saves each year under Maddon. While they have had repeated success with the closer role, the situation at first base has been a bit different.  As Joe Maddon often says about these types of situations, the Rays meatloafed the first base situation.

This offseason, the Rays have repeated addressed their desire to bring closure to the situation at first base. The team is well-known for its secrecy and nuanced comments in regards to player acquisitions, but the desire to re-sign Loney became more transparent as the Winter Meetings progressed. Many teams will say that they want to retain their free agents, but the comments from Andrew Friedman, and in particular Joe Maddon, seemed genuine. Both men said they wanted someone who could handle right-handed pitching and valued the defensive aspect of the position. Once the rumor was floated that the Mets asked for Tyler Thornburg for Ike Davis, it became clear the Rays were out of that trade market as they place a high value on their young and controllable starting pitchers.

So, why Loney on a three-year deal for $21 million?

In terms of average annual value, the contract is right in line with what the crowdsourcing efforts were, as it was projected he would get two years at $15.1M.  The third year appears to have become necessary because of the open market competition from clubs such as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, and continues the trend of inflation taking the form of an additional year rather than a higher annual average value. Additionally, next year’s free agent class looks to be even thinner than the one teams dealt with this season.

According to MLB Trade Rumors, the free agent class at first base for next offseason has just six names on it:

None display the type of defensive chops Tampa Bay values, and some could have their options exercised. If that were to happen, the available pool of names for first base next season would contain two players that invoked very lukewarm commitments this offseason.

The other aspect of this commitment is financial stability, something Tommy Rancel of TheProcessReport first pointed out. Wiith Loney under control, the Rays have the entire infield, both catchers, and and one outfielder (David DeJesus) under set prices through the next two seasons. That concrete part of their budget will allow them to better plan financially for the next two seasons as they attempt to lock up key players such as Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings to pre-arbitration deals. Those types of deals have been key to the team’s sustainability as a competitive franchise despite its limited budget.

Loney has been a 2-win player two of the previous three seasons. Many will point to his 2013 season as an outlier, but when looking at his full-season wOBA’s, 2012 looks like the outlier.

  • 2008 – .335
  • 2009 – .332
  • 2010 – .316
  • 2011 – .328
  • 2012 – .272
  • 2013 – .339

His 2013 success was fueled by a 30% line drive rate which resulted in the highest BABIP of his full-season career. Another aspect of his game that helped him improve was his ability to handle left-handed pitchers. Loney has historically done poorly against lefties and had just a .270 wOBA against them in 570 PA from 2009 to 2012. Last season, Loney had a .320 wOBA against lefties in 166 plate appearances.

Oliver projects Loney as a 2.1 win player over the life of his new deal. Even with the inflated prices that the new marketplace has created, Oliver does not like Loney to turn a profit on this deal.  The inflated BABIP and single-season spike in improvement against lefties are outcomes that are tough to sustain, even with a change of approach. Whereas the Dodgers wanted Loney to hit with more power, the Rays simply want him to to create runs in any way he can. As Maddon put it last season:

“Offensively, if you break him down, the biggest run against him is a lack of homers. So what?” Maddon said. “Whenever you get a guy that drives 90 or 100 runs in and doesn’t hit a ton of homers, that guy’s probably a pretty good hitter. He probably drives in a lot of runs with two outs with line drives and ground balls, and there’s a lot of value there, too.”

If Loney were to be what he has been two of the previous three seasons, the deal works out for Tampa Bay. Carlos Pena was the last player the team made such a commitment to at the position. Pena’s first two years of the deal paid off well as Pena was a 6-win player over the first two years of the deal before his precipitous fall-off in the final year of the deal.

Even with that poor final season, the Rays paid $24M for 6.8 wins out of Pena. Loney is certainly capable of struggling as his career issues against lefties and his high rate of balls in play leave him susceptible to the BABIP gods. It is the team’s hope that Loney continues to help the team excel at run prevention while being an above-average run creator, which he has been four of the past six seasons.

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