Rays Pay Up for James Loney

Over the past three seasons, the modus operandi for the Tampa Bay Rays has been to find a one-year solution at first base in the clearance bin of the offseason market. In 2011, that came in the form of adding Casey Kotchman on a minor league deal and watching him produce a 2.4 win season. In 2012, the team upped the budget and spent $7.25M to bring back Carlos Pena a year after he left via free agency, but Pena struggled through a 0.7 win season. Last season, James Loney was brought in on a $2M deal, and turned a profit with a career-best 2.7 win season.

The first base situation has been as much as a revolving door as the closer role has been with the club. Until Fernando Rodney repeated as the team saves leader last season, the team had had a different pitcher leads the team in saves each year under Maddon. While they have had repeated success with the closer role, the situation at first base has been a bit different.  As Joe Maddon often says about these types of situations, the Rays meatloafed the first base situation.

This offseason, the Rays have repeated addressed their desire to bring closure to the situation at first base. The team is well-known for its secrecy and nuanced comments in regards to player acquisitions, but the desire to re-sign Loney became more transparent as the Winter Meetings progressed. Many teams will say that they want to retain their free agents, but the comments from Andrew Friedman, and in particular Joe Maddon, seemed genuine. Both men said they wanted someone who could handle right-handed pitching and valued the defensive aspect of the position. Once the rumor was floated that the Mets asked for Tyler Thornburg for Ike Davis, it became clear the Rays were out of that trade market as they place a high value on their young and controllable starting pitchers.

So, why Loney on a three-year deal for $21 million?

In terms of average annual value, the contract is right in line with what the crowdsourcing efforts were, as it was projected he would get two years at $15.1M.  The third year appears to have become necessary because of the open market competition from clubs such as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, and continues the trend of inflation taking the form of an additional year rather than a higher annual average value. Additionally, next year’s free agent class looks to be even thinner than the one teams dealt with this season.

According to MLB Trade Rumors, the free agent class at first base for next offseason has just six names on it:

None display the type of defensive chops Tampa Bay values, and some could have their options exercised. If that were to happen, the available pool of names for first base next season would contain two players that invoked very lukewarm commitments this offseason.

The other aspect of this commitment is financial stability, something Tommy Rancel of TheProcessReport first pointed out. Wiith Loney under control, the Rays have the entire infield, both catchers, and and one outfielder (David DeJesus) under set prices through the next two seasons. That concrete part of their budget will allow them to better plan financially for the next two seasons as they attempt to lock up key players such as Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Wil Myers, and Desmond Jennings to pre-arbitration deals. Those types of deals have been key to the team’s sustainability as a competitive franchise despite its limited budget.

Loney has been a 2-win player two of the previous three seasons. Many will point to his 2013 season as an outlier, but when looking at his full-season wOBA’s, 2012 looks like the outlier.

  • 2008 – .335
  • 2009 – .332
  • 2010 – .316
  • 2011 – .328
  • 2012 – .272
  • 2013 – .339

His 2013 success was fueled by a 30% line drive rate which resulted in the highest BABIP of his full-season career. Another aspect of his game that helped him improve was his ability to handle left-handed pitchers. Loney has historically done poorly against lefties and had just a .270 wOBA against them in 570 PA from 2009 to 2012. Last season, Loney had a .320 wOBA against lefties in 166 plate appearances.

Oliver projects Loney as a 2.1 win player over the life of his new deal. Even with the inflated prices that the new marketplace has created, Oliver does not like Loney to turn a profit on this deal.  The inflated BABIP and single-season spike in improvement against lefties are outcomes that are tough to sustain, even with a change of approach. Whereas the Dodgers wanted Loney to hit with more power, the Rays simply want him to to create runs in any way he can. As Maddon put it last season:

“Offensively, if you break him down, the biggest run against him is a lack of homers. So what?” Maddon said. “Whenever you get a guy that drives 90 or 100 runs in and doesn’t hit a ton of homers, that guy’s probably a pretty good hitter. He probably drives in a lot of runs with two outs with line drives and ground balls, and there’s a lot of value there, too.”

If Loney were to be what he has been two of the previous three seasons, the deal works out for Tampa Bay. Carlos Pena was the last player the team made such a commitment to at the position. Pena’s first two years of the deal paid off well as Pena was a 6-win player over the first two years of the deal before his precipitous fall-off in the final year of the deal.

Even with that poor final season, the Rays paid $24M for 6.8 wins out of Pena. Loney is certainly capable of struggling as his career issues against lefties and his high rate of balls in play leave him susceptible to the BABIP gods. It is the team’s hope that Loney continues to help the team excel at run prevention while being an above-average run creator, which he has been four of the past six seasons.





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Vegemitch
10 years ago

“Whenever you get a guy that drives 90 or 100 runs in…”
Really Joe Maddon?

Simon
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

Are you actually disagreeing with what he said, or are you just having a pointless whinge about the fact that he mentioned RBIs?

Vegemitch
10 years ago
Reply to  Simon

One of the practical leaders of “new school” baseball singling out RBI as an important measure of hitter valuation is no mere pointless whinge, friend!

pudieron89
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

his point is that he’s a run creator, not that RBI are an analytical tool. read between the lines broseph.

NS
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

“singling out RBI as an important measure of hitter valuation”

Nope, that’s not what happened.

YABooble
10 years ago
Reply to  Simon

BREAKING NEWS

Fangraphs post sets new record for most uses of the word “whinge” (2):

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/rays-pay-up-for-james-loney/

Miley C
10 years ago
Reply to  YABooble

Hi guys!! Did someone call me?

Wait, what? Oh…I thought you said “pointless wench.”

Mark
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

It might be a questionable comment, but you have to remember that the market price is still driven by RBI; there are GMs that value this stuff. The Rays goal is to make teams discount the “hidden-value” aspects of the game and keep the cost of those services low (like the defensive catcher market is). Loney and other line-drive 1B has been a lower commodity compared with the high-HR/RBI 1B market which has allowed the Rays to find these guys (Keppinger, Kotchman) and sign guys to 1-year deals.

So I dont think this comment is silly at all. On the surface, yeah. But you have to remember when the Rays say something in the public domain (Maddon included), there is a purpose to it.

Bill
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

He’s slightly positive on the offensive side, but what I don’t understand is the negative defensive WAR. I looked up a few other 1b and it would appear that it’s difficult to get a true read on this. A good example would be Napoli, who actually lost less WAR out of defense than Loney. Now Napoli handled first base well for the Sox last year, but having seem them match up 15 times in person I can tell you Napoli doesn’t have the same range or soft hands around the bag that Loney has, nor the same ability to start double plays. I think somehow WAR maybe needs to be adjusted for DEF at 1b somehow and Loney should be worth it to go along with his average to slightly above average offensive value.

Brandon Firstname
10 years ago
Reply to  Bill

The defensive component of WAR includes positional adjustment. When looking at first baseman WAR, you have to remember that even the best first basemen in the game is still not a very good fielder compared to league average players.

jrubymember
10 years ago

I think what he’s saying, although it’s unclear what with the statement “WAR needs to be adjusted for DEF at 1b” and whatnot, is actually that Loney is a visibly better defender than Napoli, and the defensive components aren’t as reliable as they should be (because they don’t reflect that Loney > Napoli defensively iiho). Because the whole analysis was comparing/contrasting Loney and Napoli, not 1b dwar and other positions.

Sorry for the analysis of a comment; I just got out of a final and am still in essay/analysis mode.

Bill
10 years ago

jruby hit on it, how in the heck is loney listed as worse defensively than Napoli? Anyway, just a comment as I just randomly looked up a few 1b and that just struck me as odd.

Nathaniel Dawson
10 years ago

Napoli had a better year defensively than Loney did (by UZR). Why does that mess people up?

Jason B
10 years ago

I think with more concrete statistics, folks can do the math or at least see and understand the calculations; there’s no disputing that someone hit .310 (even if we don’t really believe he’s a true talent .310 hitter), or hit 24 HR, or drove in 85 runs, or struck out 130 times.

But some feel that fielding metrics often don’t jive with the eye test, or don’t match up to what they think they saw, or to their preconceived ideas about who is or isn’t a good or bad fielder. I think that’s the rub.

You can’t dispute that Adam Dunn strikes out more than Miguel Cabrera; it’s black-and-white, cut-and-dried. But does Napoli field ‘better’ than Loney? Not so much. Lots of imperfect metrics, such that measuring it and interpreting the measurements can be as much art as science.

Krog
10 years ago
Reply to  Bill

The first table in the stats page lists defense as fielding and positional adjustment combined, so all first basemen have below average fielding numbers due to a heavy positional adjustment.

For defense only numbers, you have to scroll down to advanced fielding. Loney’s UZR for 2013 was +6.1. So he was an above average fielding first baseman.

Ruki Motomiya
10 years ago
Reply to  Bill

Defensive positional adjustments at 1B(and DH) are pretty stupid mostly. Miguel Cabrera has been more valuable as a third basemen than a first basemen.

maguro
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

Yeah, but he wears glasses so we know he’s analytical and stuff.

Lakeside
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

Maybe he was dumbing it down for the USA Today crowd, if not im shocked also.

Pirates Hurdles
10 years ago
Reply to  Lakeside

He’s not saying he values RBI, he’s making a point that there is more than one way to skin a cat, ie, you don’t have to hit homers to be productive in the middle of a lineup.

Vegemitch
10 years ago

He states that this guy doesn’t hit a lot of homers but still gets RBI, therefore he is a good hitter. This is false. It is the equivalent of saying that J. Votto does hit some HR but didn’t get as many RBI, therefore is a worse hitter than J. Loney.

vivalajeter
10 years ago

Vegemitch, he says that someone is *probably* a good hitter if they knock in 100 runs without hitting a lot of HR, and they *probably* knock in runs with two outs. And he’s right. If you look at everybody who knocked in 90-100 runs without a lot of HR, the majority of those players will be good hitters. Not every single one, but a lot of them. Some players can ‘luck’ their way into 100 rbi’s by having a lot of opportunities with runners in scoring position, but most players aren’t that lucky.

Add in that he’s speaking publicly about someone that they just signed, and there’s nothing wrong with his statement.

vivalajeter
10 years ago

Also, your ‘equivalent’ line is poppycock. Just because he says someone with certain attributes is a good hitter, it doesn’t mean someone with different attributes is a worse hitter.

Steve Kerr wasn’t great at passing, playing defense, or driving to the basket, but he was a good player because he was a tremendous three-point shooter. Is that the equivalent of saying that Michael Jordan is worse than Steve Kerr, because he can pass, play defense and drive to the basket but he wasn’t a tremendous three-point shooter?

DodgersKings323
10 years ago
Reply to  Vegemitch

Hahahahaha same thing the Apologists would say on Dodgers.com for years