We heard the Tampa Rays were interested in bringing back James Loney, but frankly many of us did not think a signing was possible. For those people the reasoning was simple: the Rays let their free agents walk. Why would James Loney be an different? Sure, he had a great year and he was great in the clubhouse, but how many of those players have the Rays let get away? This time, though, the Rays left their comfort zone and got a deal done. The significance of that cannot be understated.
From a simple understanding, the Rays’ signing of Loney fills a huge hole: first base. The Rays were set up just about everywhere else on the diamond, but first base was an extreme question mark as their options were dwindling. Ike Davis or Mitch Moreland could have been gotten with a trade or Mark Reynolds could have been signed as a free agent, but each one of them came with their flaws. Davis and Reynolds were inconsistent and Moreland was mediocre. Were the Rays really going to head into 2014 with one of those three as their first baseman? Rays fans hoped they would not, but it did not seem like there was any other option. Loney was a free agent, but he was asking for three years and $30 million, and there was no chance the Rays were going to pay him that type of money. As it turns out, though, three years and $21 million was a price the Rays believed was worthwhile.
Loney is coming off a strong year, hitting to a .299/.348/.430 line (118 OPS+) with 13 home runs and 75 RBI. His gap-to-gap approach, strong defense, and calm demeanor in the clubhouse came out as earnestly as ever, and he had himself his best season since 2007. But there was one major shift in Loney, and that was how he hit against left-handed pitching. His OPS against them jumped from just .558 from 2010 to 2012 to .725 in 2013, and his increases in batting average, on-base perecentage, and slugging percentage were all statistically significant from the previous three years. Loney had always been a solid all-around hitter, but failing to hit lefties made his overall numbers take a sharp dip and eventually got him out of the lineup when a left-handed was on the mound. Suddenly emerging as a solid option against lefties made Loney exponentially more valuable. Unlike Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger, we can pinpoint exactly what Loney’s breakthrough was in 2013, and clearly the Rays believe that it was real.
The biggest thing, though, is that this offseason has showcased how the Rays are starting to move away from the flat dollars and cents calculations and look at pure value. We first saw it when they extended David DeJesus at two years and $10.5 million, a bargain rate to get him but not a bargain in absolute terms. As we saw the Rays extend beyond their usual limits to get a good deal, we wondered whether they would be willing to do the same thing to re-sign Loney. As it turned out, the answer was yes. When the Rays saw James Loney available for $7 million a year, they jumped at the opportunity. The Rays surely could have signed someone for less, but they decided that $7 million each of the next three years on James Loney is worth more than $7 million on their usual low-cost signings, ones that often come with upside but also carry a real chance of turning into nothing. Though Loney may regress to an extent next year, he has proven himself a solid first baseman every year of his career except for 2012, and the Rays saw this season just how good he can be if things go well. A multi-year deal certainly amplifies the risk, but the Rays saw a player consistent enough that doling out three years was not such a leap of faith at all. Now the Rays have James Loney back, and after years of turnover at the first base position, they finally have someone they can rely on for the next three years.