Two seasons ago Casey Kotchman, a career .259/.326/.392 (91 wRC+) hitter in over 2,300 plate appearances coming into the year, posted a stellar .306/.378/.422 (127 wRC+) line in 563 plate appearances for the Rays. This past season Jeff Keppinger, a career .281/.332/.388 (92 wRC+) hitter in nearly 2,300 plate appearances coming into the year, posted a stellar .325/.367/.439 (128 wRC+) line in 418 plate appearances for the Rays. Tampa bay is now going to try to work their magic on James Loney.
Loney, 28, has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with the Rays according to Tim Brown and Jon Heyman. He’s been a league average hitter throughout his career (.282/.339/.419, 103 wRC+ in nearly 3,500 plate appearances) but has slipped below that level in recent years, hitting just .296/.322/.386 (94 wRC+) in just short of 1,700 plate appearances since the start of 2010. This year he put up a .249/.293/.336 (70 wRC+) line in 465 plate appearances for the Dodgers and Red Sox, career-worsts across the board.
Can Loney’s offense spike like Kotchman’s and Keppinger’s? Sure, it’s possible. Those two are ground ball hitters who enjoyed abnormally high BABIPs while with the Rays, possibly due to the turf at Tropicana Field and holes opening on the infield as they ran the bases aggressively. Loney’s career ground ball rate is just 43.2% (45.8% in 2012), so he’s a different type of hitter. He does put the ball in play though (career 12.2 K% and 11.0 K% last year) and good things usually happen when you do that. If nothing else, he’ll help chip away at the team’s astronomical 21.7% strikeout rate from this year.
It’s been more than a full year since Loney has hit a homer in his home ballpark — last one came on Sept. 17th of 2011 — and his troubles against left-handed pitchers have become so extreme (107 wRC+ vs. RHP and 52 wRC+ vs. LHP since 2010) that the Rays will surely pair him with a right-handed hitting platoon partner. Loney’s first base defense is rated very well by DRS and UZR, so at the very least he’ll contribute in the field. He’s not much of a base-runner either, so his game boils down to being a league average bat against righties and being a vacuum over at first base.
The Rays paid Carlos Pena more than $7 million to hit .197/.330/.354 (98 wRC+) and provide 0.9 WAR in 660 plate appearances last year. Loney will make less than a third of that and should be able to provide similar production assuming the Rays use him properly, which Joe Maddon’s history suggests they will. Tampa can’t afford to drop multiple years at big bucks on a first base masher like Adam LaRoche, so signing a stop gap like Loney for relative pittance is their best course of action at first. It’s low-risk, maybe medium-reward if things break right.