The Tampa Bay Rays’ situation at first base in 2014 will be quite similar to what it was last season. James Loney looked to land a multi-year deal elsewhere after a 2013 season that saw him hit to a .299/.348/.430 line (118 OPS+) with 33 doubles, 13 homers, and 75 RBI in 158 games. Instead, the Rays brought back Loney on a three-year, $21 million deal, extending beyond their usual limits to bring back a player they really appreciated. After not having the same first baseman two years in a row since Carlos Pena in 2009 and 2010, the Rays will finally get some stability at the position. However, things could have certainly ended a different way. Another was nearly a Ray, and the Rays’ outlook could have been very different going into this season.
Joel Sherman reported that after weeks of negotiations, the Rays finally offered Matt Joyce to the New York Mets in a straight-up deal for Ike Davis, and the Mets said no. The deal could have made a lot of sense for both sides. Joyce is more than two years older than Davis and has one less year of team control, but he has much better career numbers and the Mets could have been confident that they would be receiving a solid contributor to their 2014 effort. Joyce’s career line is .249/.340/.455, very similar to Davis’ .242/.334/.434 line, but Joyce stands out more when we adjust to ballpark, managing a 120 OPS+ versus Davis’ 112 mark. Like Davis, Joyce is not coming off a great season in 2013, but he hit to a .235/.328/.419 line (109 OPS+) with 18 home runs while Davis’ struggles landed him in the minor leagues. Joyce does not have Davis’ power, but he does a much better job making contact and getting on base while still hitting his share of home runs and stealing a few bases. Joyce is streaky and does not hit lefties, but the same applies to Davis as well. At the end of the day, it is a question of preference: would you rather have the player with the upside of a star first baseman or one who has talent but clear limitations? Both the Mets and Rays chose the former option.
The Mets wanted a prospect for Davis, and the Rays proceeded to offer them an older player. New York asked for top pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez for the Rays’ division rival Baltimore Orioles–how could you go from asking for a cheap, controllable pitcher to taking an outfielder two years from free agency? Nevertheless, that could have been the best trade offer the Mets received, and they turned it down. It tells you how much they believe in his potential that he remains on the team until today, and the fact that the Rays were willing to trade Joyce to take a chance on him tells you that they see him the same way.
Would the Rays be better off with Ike Davis instead of James Loney? Well, it certainly would have made things more interesting. Instead of having a first baseman they can rely on, the Rays would be making Davis their latest reclamation project with the possibility of greatness but also a real chance of continued struggles. The Rays offered former Toronto Blue Jays first baseman David Cooper a cheap major league contract before he signed with the Cleveland Indians, and they would have needed a player like that as insurance for Davis, especially with Joyce gone. The Rays would have had more uncertainty entering the season as we wondered how Davis would perform. But the flip-side is that clearly the Rays saw something in Davis and had reason to believe they could get him back on track. We would be excited to see just how good he could be.
After the season, we will be able to start evaluating whether the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets made the right decisions. Were the Mets right to give Davis one more chance or will another disastrous year destroy his value? Should the Rays have pushed harder to get Davis? Either way, though, the Rays know they will be just fine. Loney does not wow anyone, but he will be a solid first baseman for them for the next three years. It would have been nice to grab a talented player at the nadir of his value and watch him rebound with a vengeance, but not every opportunity comes to fruition and we cannot be sure how Davis will turn out. The past few months mark the second time that Ike Davis could have been a Tampa Bay Ray, the first being when the Rays drafted him back in 2005 but he did not sign. But though the Rays will continue to think about what could have been, they have every reason to be excited about having Loney and not Davis at first base for the next three years.