It just seemed too good to be true. The Rays love to sign players who had shown promise in the past to low-risk contracts hoping they can deliver on their potential and provide the Rays with solid value at a fraction of market value. James Loney, the ex-first round pick by the Dodgers and 6th-place finisher in the NL Rookie of the Year, fell right into their laps after slumping in his last year before free agency between the Dodgers and Red Sox. But would they actually sign him? Evidently, yes.
As first reported Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the Rays have signed Loney to a one-year contract worth 2 million dollars. Loney, who will turn 29 in May, is coming off a horrific season, managing just a .249/.293/.336 line (73 OPS+) with 20 doubles, 6 homers, 41 RBI, and 51 strikeouts versus 28 walks in 144 games and 465 plate appearances. Loney’s career got off to a great start in 486 PA’s between 2006 and 2007 as he posted a .321/.372/.543 line (132 OPS+) with 19 home runs, but he hasn’t hit for any power since then, managing just a .281/.341/.411 line (104 OPS+) with an average of just 12 home runs per season from 2008 to 2011 before going into a free-fall in 2012. Loney’s career line is .282/.339/.419 (104 OPS+). He has proven himself to be a first baseman who an hit for a good average and doesn’t strike out very much at all, striking out in just 12.2% of his big league plate appearances, but his lack of power makes him a sub-par offensive first baseman overall. Loney’s defense is good and he never gets injured (he’s never gone on the DL in his career), but nevertheless, the Rays’ reasonable expectation in signing Loney is a slightly below-average situation at first base. The Rays might be happy with that after watching Carlos Pena fall apart in 2012, managing just a .179/.313/.327 line after April. But while Rays fans can reasonably expect a consistent presence from Loney at first base next year, the Rays could be looking for more.
He has grown four inches since his junior year, and projects to hit 35-plus home runs in the majors. He generates natural loft and raw power already. – Baseball America on Loney back in 2004
Obviously things have changed from those initial observations Baseball America made. But even then, they described Loney’s power as “raw.” It’s there, somewhere. Loney is a strong guy at 6’3″, 220 and generates good bat speed as a left-handed hitter. But he has never been able to make his power materialize in games. Why? One reason has to be that he strikes out so little. When you’re trying so hard to make contact, it’s extremely hard to hit home runs. It would be interesting to see if the Rays try to adjust Loney’s approach a little bit and get him to swing more aggressively in an attempt to bring out the power he hasn’t shown in five years. Chances are it won’t happen. But even if Loney seems like nothing special, the Rays may think that some of his upside he once had is still salvageable.
Rays first basemen managed just a .209/.326/.357 line (78 sOPS+) in 2012. The Rays consider James Loney to be a good bet to deliver a solid season in 2013 and improve on that- but they also see a player who still has untapped potential and may just be primed to break out.