James Loney, a career .280 hitter in the National League, was having trouble finding a job after the 2012 season. He came to the Red Sox as part of the Adrian Gonzalez trade, and hit only .254 in limited playing time. Many major league teams must have figured he was done as a regular player, since the Rays were able to sign him to a one year deal for $2 million with some incentives. Loney turned out to be quite a bargain in 2013, providing the kind of consistent hitting that other streaky Rays hitters couldn’t match.
Loney brought his batting average back to .299 average (.300 after 162 games, but the Rays played 163 games), and enjoyed several stretches of torrid hitting. His batting average stood at .398 after a win against the Rockies on May 5 and he ended July with a .318 average. It looked for a while like Loney was going to fade, but it never really happened. From April 19th to the end of the season, Loney’s batting average never slipped below .294.
Loney cooled off a little over the last two months of the season, but his .299 average led all team regulars and 44 walks gave him a good .348 on-base percentage. He was second in RBIs with 75, and slugged 13 homers, with 13 home runs, 75 RBI and a .430 slugging percentage percentage. He may not have provided the typical power you expect from a first baseman, but Loney laced liners from gap to gap as good as anyone in baseball and used his approach to come up with big hits seemingly every time the Rays needed him as he hit .310 with runners in scoring position. Loney was also arguably the Rays’ best hitter during the ALDS loss to the Rex Sox, batting .417 with two doubles, two RBI, and a .533 on-base percentage. His 2013 postseason average was actually only his second highest for a post season series; in 2008 he hit .438 in the NLCS for the Dodgers against the Phillies. Finally, he proved his value as a fielder, leading the league in double plays started by a first baseman with 14 and becoming a finalist for the Gold Glove. Loney’s strong 2013 season season clearly reestablished his credibility as a solid starter in the major leagues. Only 29, Loney figures to field offers for significantly more than the $2 million the Rays paid him in 2013 from several teams with power that could benefit from Loney’s glove and on-base percentage.
It’s not clear whether any of his offers will come from the Rays as Loney’s success might have priced him out of their range. He could be looking at a multi-year deal with a total value over $20 million. The Pirates, Rockies, and even the Red Sox have been identified as potential suitors for Loney. Rays fans have to hope that Loney liked Tampa Bay enough to negotiate a significant salary increase, but one that can work within the Rays’ budget. The Rays may have a little more flexibility in their 2014 budget than in years past, as shown by their picking up David DeJesus’ $6.5 million option for next year. If the Rays can afford to pay DeJesus that much money, perhaps they can afford to pay Loney a salary approaching what he can command on the open market. Loney became the latest first baseman to come to Tampa Bay and turn his entire career? Will his Rays career have a second chapter?