Rays to Re-Sign James Loney
At the winter meetings Andrew Friedman said he thought the Rays would have a solution for first base by the end of the month. As it turns out he only needed until the end of the week. With the market for first basemen drying up, the Rays turned to a familiar face, inking James Loney to a three-year contract worth $21 million dollars. The deal which has yet to be confirmed by the team was first reported by Ken Rosenthal.
In the age of social media and instant analysis, moves involving certain players and/or teams are met with a cavalcade of snark and sarcasm. For no apparent reason, James Loney is one of them. An average, if not productive, player for the better part of the last decade, he keeps a low profile and a clean nose both on and off the field. His signing with the Rays last offseason brought snide remarks which beget an even more elicit response this winter as this deal is much larger that the one-year, $2 million pact from a year ago.
Perception aside, there appears to be little wrong with this arrangement. Loney is an average — or slightly better — player better being paid at what appears to be market rate. The comparison to Casey Kotchman will be made, but that is rather lazy. Some will quickly point out Loney’s disastrous 2012, and sudden rebound as too positive of a correction, but looking at each season in which he has logged over 300 plate appearances, it is 2012 and not 2013 that jumps out as more of the outlier.
Season by wRC+
2007 – 137
2008 – 102
2009 – 103
2010 – 97
2011 – 110
2012 – 70
2013 – 115
While Kotchman enjoyed a career year with the Rays due to inflated an average on balls in play that would burst soon after, Loney’s resurgence was very much in line with career marks and with tangible reasoning for the upswing. There is a chance he hits closer to .280 than .300 going forward, but a .280/.340/.430 line with above-average defense seems extremely doable not just next season, but over the length of the contract.
Speaking of length, the number of years committed to Loney is a sticking point for some. Paying seven million dollars for one year may be fine, but why for three? I have my own personal theory that I shared on twitter and will repeat here.
Earlier this offseason, I suggested that because of rising market prices and dwindling market options, the Rays may become hoarders of talent; electing to collect as much talent as possible even if there does not appear to be a clear fit-slash-need (Ryan Hanigan) or when they might have not retained a player at that price in the past (David DeJesus). This would allow the budget conscious front office to work with cost certainty and give the flexibility to deal from areas of strength on the trade market. With multi-year contracts handed to DeJesus, Hanigan and now Loney, the team has the entire infield, outfield, rotation and several high-leverage bullpen arms under control through the 2015 season. This protects them from being outbid — and potentially shut out — on the open market for the rest of this offseason as well as the next. The mostly fixed (arbitration) budget should allow them to take what additional revenue (new national television contracts begin in 2014) may be left over and put toward potential extensions for pre-arbitration players like Alex Cobb, Wil Myers and Chris Archer or perhaps holding on to already expensive ones such as David Price.
Loney is not without flaws. He has limited power, previous platoon issues, and bouts of futility at the plate. Meanwhile, he boasts elite bat-to-ball skills, a firm understanding of the strike zone and is a top-level defender at his position. These skills should age well as the contract comes to term. There is considerable risk on the Rays side given their financial limitations, but at the same time, searching for a productive solution at first base each December is risky in its own right considering the escalating salaries throughout the game.
As Friedman once said, he is market driven. In past years, he was able to build teams exercising positive arbitrage or the practice of getting players for less than their perceived worth. While that is still the goal for not just Friedman, but every team and general manager, some times the market forces you to drive in neutral. And that is not such a bad thing as long as it gets you to where you need to be.