If the Rays Sign James Loney, They’re Taking It Too Far
By Robbie Knopf
The other day in the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo mentioned current Red Sox first baseman James Loney, who will be a free agent following the year, as an option for the Rays next season. It seems to make sense. The Rays love buying low on players. The Rays last two first baseman, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman were both originally signed by the Rays to minor league deals. Why can’t Loney potentially be next? It’s not like they’re committing a lot of money to him if they sign him to the same type of deal. Worst-case scenario, he fails and they release him. But even that just seems completely ridiculous.
You can’t ignore the comparisons. Pena and Kotchman were both 28 when the Rays sign him. Loney is also 28. Both Pena and Kotchman were former top prospect and had also had big league success at times prior to coming to Tampa Bay, with Pena slamming 27 homers for the Tigers in 2004 and Kotchman hitting .296 with a .372 OBP in 137 games for the Angels in 2007. Loney is another formerly highly-touted prospect, and he hit .331 with 15 homers on his way to a 6th-place Rookie of the Year finish in 2007. But there’s one key piece of the story missing.
Pena and Kotchman were given up on multiple times and bounced around from team to team. The Los Angeles Dodgers for some deluded reason stuck with James Loney as their starting first baseman for five entire seasons. From 2008 to 2011, he played in at least 158 games each season. And he showed absolutely nothing that warrants another big league team giving him another chance as a starting first baseman. Loney hit 15 homers in 96 games in 2007. He hasn’t hit that many in a season since despite playing so many games. Power is a key part of being a first baseman. Loney doesn’t have it. But neither did Kotchman! But Loney doesn’t do anything else! Since his rookie season, Loney has posted a .276/.334/.399 line. That .399 slugging percentage is horrific for a first baseman, but considering how high his batting average has been, it looks even worse (.123 ISO). He doesn’t hit for power. He doesn’t draw walks. He doesn’t have any speed. His defense is decent. What does he do? He hits for some average. Carlos Pena has hit right around .200 this season and Loney could assuredly hit quite a bit better than that. But even in the best-case scenario, Loney is an average first baseman at best. Since 2008, Loney has a 99 OPS+, 1% below average. Taking out his dismal 2012 season, it goes to 108, 8% above average. But even that isn’t so impressive! He has never gotten above a 110 OPS+ since 2007. But wait a second. 100 is average for OPS overall. For first baseman in the major leagues, the average is 114. Loney hasn’t even managed to be an average first baseman since 2007! We know what type of player he is. We have seen it for years right now. And he has never done anything worth our attention.
Carlos Pena has been terrible this season, and that was even more the case before his hot streak of late. But the Rays knew that he at least had the potential to slam 30 homers, get on base at a good clip, and be above-average by a good margin. Kotchman had struggled for years. But if you lived with his lack of power and gave him a real chance, he had the ability to be a .300 hitter with a good OBP. What can Loney give you? Nothing. Rays first baseman have been terrible this season. James Loney gives you a chance to be slightly below-average. The Rays love upside. Loney gives you none of that. The Rays are better off going with a platoon of Jeff Keppinger and Pena next season at first base even if Keppinger regresses like crazy because maybe Pena seizes the position again by finding his stroke for a more extended period of time and gives the Rays good power.
The Rays have to consider James Loney. He fits all the parameters for the type of players they go after on low-risk deals. But at the end of this day, it just isn’t worth it.