Should the Rays Re-Sign James Loney?
Finding a new first baseman has become an annual offseason task for Andrew Friedman. Since Carlos Pena departed after the 2010 season, the Rays have opted for year-to-year solutions at the cold corner. Last season was no different, with James Loney taking over on a one-year deal. Now, with Loney nearing the open market, Friedman must decide whether to bring him back or find an alternative.
Anytime a player is coming off a career season, a sense of dread clouds potential contract talks. The concepts of buying low and selling high are understood, though often misused, as there’s more to a player’s value than his current production. Besides, it’s rarely that simple; sweat equity exists and can alter a team’s valuation of a player—rationally or not. Still, the concern is the team signing a career-year wonder will pay market value for an unrepeatable level of performance.
Because of his reputation, Loney figures to be one player named as an overpay candidate. He posted a career-high OPS+ among seasons in which he tallied 500-plus plate appearances, and did so after an abysmal 2012 campaign. Even with the knowledge that Loney’s numbers last season were comparable to what he did from 2009 to 2011, it’s worth noting the league environment has changed; players who perform like their 2010 selves are more valuable now than they were then. Consider Loney’s raw numbers and his OPS+:
2009-2011: .278/.342/.403 (104 OPS+)
2013: .299/.348/.430 (118 OPS+)
Of course for the most part Loney remains the same ballplayer he was then. He lacks the position’s typical power production, but atones with good bat-to-ball and defensive skills. As a result, the Rays might have more confidence in his ability to repeat or come close to his 2013 performance than they did with Casey Kotchman a few years back. And yet that skills combination rarely results in a big payday, or even a multi-year contract on the open market.
Over the past three winters, just four first baseman have signed multi-year deals. That’s not including professional pinch-hitter types, or utility players who can and did move to other positions. Those four first baseman were Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adam LaRoche, and Nick Swisher. Additionally, five other first basemen signed single-year pacts worth more than $4 million: Mike Napoli (who, it should be noted, had a multi-year deal in hand before his physical), Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena (twice), Juan Rivera, and Derrek Lee. In each case, the player in question hit for more power than Loney.
None of this precludes Loney from receiving a multi-year offer or a one-year deal worth more than $4 million. This is a weak free-agent market at the position, with Napoli, Justin Morneau, Corey Hart, Reynolds, and Cuban import Jose Abreu serving as the alternatives. Loney is likely to earn a raise over his $2 million salary in 2013 (and should top Kotchman’s post-Rays payday of $3 million), but he should remain affordable to the Rays if the market’s attitude toward his type remains the same.