Should the Rays Go All-In for James Loney?

By Robbie Knopf

It was almost a foregone conclusion throughout baseball that James Loney‘s 2013 season with the Tampa Bay Rays would be his last. Loney had a great year, hitting to a .299/.348/.430 line (118 OPS+) to go along with great defense, and especially since he was hitting the market still months away from turning 30 years of age, some other team was going to give him a multi-year deal. Two months after the Rays’ season ended, the odds are still in favor of Loney departing–but surprisingly, the Rays are still in the running.

Loney is reportedly seeking three years and $27 million and the Rays would want him for less, but simply the fact that we are still hearing their name in connection to him could mean they are considering making a significant offer. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Rays have signed just two players to a multi-year worth at least $6 million a year: Evan Longoria and Pat Burrell. As a franchise icon, Longoria was the exception, not the rule, and Burrell turned out to be a total disaster. Is James Loney could enough to warrant the Rays leaving their comfort zone one more time?

In 2013, James Loney became the latest Rays first baseman signed to a low-cost contract to come through with a breakout year. However, there was a big difference between Loney and Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger before him: his 2013 season was not so out of the ordinary. Loney’s career batting line is .285/.340/.421–Loney’s batting average was a few ticks higher, but his overall line was not so different from his career numbers at all. That is somewhat misleading because Dodger Stadium, while Loney has played most of his career, is more hitter-friendly than Tropicana Field. Nevertheless, though, Loney’s breakout was not nearly as surprising or aberrant as a player like Kotchman or Keppinger. He hit lefties better than he had in the past, but otherwise he was essentially the same hitter, only with a combination of adjustments and some luck leading to a stronger year than usual. James Loney is different from past cases–he has proven himself to be more reliable.

$9 million is a lot of money by Rays standards. The only player to surpass that total this seaosn was David Price–in fact, he was the only one to make more than $6 million. How much are the Rays willing to play for a more consistent player than they have featured in the past? This season, they could very well acquire some other first baseman like Logan Morrison or Ike Davis via trade, and if recent trends continue, he will be just as good as Loney at a fraction of the cost. Doing that, however, also comes with risk, and the Rays must have a price in which signing Loney makes sense.

The Rays know how successful they have been in the past, but no matter how great they are at finding undervalued talent, the Rays know that it is only a matter of time before one of their first-base signings fails absolutely. Carlos Pena did not live up to expectations in 2013 despite his $7.25 million salary, and the Rays were lucky that Keppinger had easily his best offensive season to help pick up the load. Will there be a Keppinger around next time? Having Loney signed for multiple years would finally allow the Rays to relax more about their first base situation and address other needs. The Rays will not overextend for James Loney, but if the potential cost would fit into their budget, they will not hesitate to deviate from their previous strategy and sign him to a multi-year deal.