Over the past few years, the Rays have become known for their ‘Reclamation Projects,’ players that no other team has interest in, but that they are somehow able to resurrect into extremely productive players. This season, James Loney and Kelly Johnson have become the latest in the line of players that the Rays have brought in with very little fanfare, but have been able to far exceed expectations.
Both players were recognized in an article Jonah Keri wrote about the biggest bargains in Major League Baseball. Loney may have cooled off after a hot start that had him leading the American League in batting at one point, but he is still hitting a robust .329/.389/.485 on the season. Most impressively, Loney has continued to take walks and has begun to hit for a bit of the power he displayed at the beginning part of his career. Perhaps all he really needed was a change of scenery to become the player that he was expected to be. Outside of the pressure of large markets such as Los Angeles and Boston, Loney appears to have blossomed into the good hitting/great fielding first baseman he was thought to be.
Johnson, likewise, is in the midst of a career revival. Despite having not played left field since 2005, Johnson has established himself as the Rays regular left fielder, and has been impressive defensively, gunning down six baserunners from the outfield. Along with Loney, the Rays have done an excellent job at putting Johnson in a position where he can succeed, and have been able to limit his deficiencies as much as possible. In exchange, the Rays have been rewarded with a player who has been hitting as he did back in 2010, when he appeared on the verge of being a very solid second baseman. He also leads the Rays in home runs and RBIs, while ranking third on the club in batting average and on base percentage.
Both players have also seen their performances be rewarded. Johnson has been hitting third over the past few games, while Loney has been providing the protection behind Evan Longoria. In fact, both players have been a major reason as to why the Rays offense has been one of the best in baseball, scoring the fourth most runs in the American League. The concerns at the start of the year as to how the Rays would be able to protect Longoria and score runs have been answered, in no small part, due to their level of play.
Joel Peralta was also named as an honorable mention. Another player that the Rays had grabbed off the scrap heap, Peralta had become their primary setup man, someone that Joe Maddon could turn to at any given time to get that crucial out when needed. This year, he has stepped his game up even more, and has become the most consistent reliever the Rays have had. With the struggles of the bullpen, there is some relief in knowing that there is at least one pitcher who has been able to get the job done.
For a team with the payroll constraints that the Tampa Bay Rays have, being able to locate players such as Loney, Johnson, Peralta and the others they have acquired over the years is a major part of building a contender. These players may be on the All-Bargain Team, but they are also indicative of the Rays seemingly innate ability to take players that are essentially afterthoughts and turn them into far more than anyone would have expected.