December 16, 2013
Re-signed 1B-L James Loney to a three-year deal worth $21 million. [12/13]
It's common for the Rays to turn around an underperforming veteran's career behind smart usage, quality coaching, and good fortune. It's uncommon to see the Rays then commit to that player. In recent years, Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger have come and gone without Andrew Friedman extending the relationship beyond one season. A tiny budget no doubt forces Friedman's hands to a degree, but his emotionless approach and self-restraint border on inhuman.
So what then should we make of Friedman's decision to sign the latest Johnny-rebound-lately to a three-year deal? After all, this is the same GM who hasn't committed to a first baseman for more than one season since January 2008, when he extended Carlos Pena for three years and $24.5 million. Loney, like Pena, enjoyed a career-saving campaign before the deal. Unlike Pena, Loney didn't homer 46 times, but he did post the best full-season True Average of his career.
Above all else, Loney is a tremendous defender. His hands are soft, his reactions quick, and his arm strong—a leftover from his days on the mound. He's calculating and bold almost to a fault at times, as his lone defensive blemish is a tendency to overplay balls to his right, leaving him out of place to cover the bag.
By comparison, Loney's offensive game is disappointing. Almost all his offensive value is derived from singles, doubles, and walks, a trio that makes him a black sheep at the cold corner. Even last season's .281 TAv was two points below that of the average major league first baseman. Give Loney this if nothing else: he tends to be consistent. From 2008 to 2011, Loney's TAv ranged from .260 to .272. The past two seasons have seen his TAv run cold (.220 in 2012) and warm, but he seems like a fair bet to finish the next few seasons between .260 and .280. Such marks would still leave him hanging below the league's best hitters at the position, but there's something to be said for being dependably mediocre.
The irony being, of course, that a big knock against Loney's 2013 is inconsistency. An oversimplified summary goes like this: Loney fixed his timing, did his hitting in April and May, then took the rest of the year off. The narrative holds when comparing the first and second halves (he hit .315/.366/.466 before, .276/.322/.378 after) but fails upon closer examination. Loney slumped in August, recording just one extra-base hit; however, his numbers in July and September stack up to his seasonal rates.
Likewise, Loney's value metrics from 2013 compare favorably to his 2011 marks. The commonly accepted going rate for a win is around $7 million, meaning that the Rays are paying market value for a win across three seasons. It turns out Loney has been worth more than a win in two of his past three seasons—the exception being, naturally, his abysmal 2012 effort. Assuming Loney can avoid a sequel, the deal should be fine in a vacuum.
No deal plays out in a vacuum, though, and the Rays operate with a small budget, which means they have to make their money count. Still, Friedman has signed three veteran players to multi-year deals this winter, indicating there is newfound breathing room on the ledger. Wil Myers won't reach arbitration until before the 2016 season, leaving Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist as the key players on soon-to-expire contracts (both are signed through 2015). Should Loney collapse, he could become something of an albatross. Barring that, it's an okay deal under unusual circumstances. —R.J. Anderson
With Loney staying in Tampa Bay, his situational fantasy value largely remains the same, so the big question mark is whether the 2013 version will show up again in 2014. Even in his feel-good campaign, he was not a top-20 first baseman for fantasy purposes. The odds of him becoming a top-20 option for the coming season is unlikely, so Loney will remain a mostly uninteresting mixed-league option at a corner spot. However, in AL-only leagues, he'll continue to be an underrated play who should fetch double digits at draft day. —Bret Sayre