Update: The Rays and James Loney are close to reaching a deal, according to Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports. Jim Bowden of ESPN reports the deal is for one year with a base salary of $2 million and $1 million in incentive-based bonuses.
Oct. 20: For the second straight year, the Rays enter the offseason in need of a first baseman. One player already mentioned in relation to the opening is James Loney, formerly of the Dodgers and Red Sox. Loney is an atypical first baseman. He relies on contact and defense rather than all-world power. In many ways, Loney’s plight mirrors that of former Tampa Bay first baseman Casey Kotchman—from heralded top prospect to discarded free agent. Kotchman worked out surprisingly well for the Rays. Could Loney do the same?
Loney boasts impressive hand-eye coordination at the plate. His bat control is impeccable, and his plate coverage is excellent; a combination that lends itself to a high rate of contact. Loney’s bat-handling ways allow him to extend plate appearances by spoiling put-away offerings, though this can also result in easy groundouts. He shows willingness and an ability to go with the pitch as well, with most of his batted balls gracing the middle of the field.
On occasion, Loney’s ability to hit anything works against him. When he enters into protect mode, he can take liberties with the strike zone by swinging at pitches well outside. Similar woes creep into Loney’s approach when he sits in favorable counts. In one instance, I witnessed Loney work a 2-0 count before swinging at a curveball below the zone. He connected and the ball dribbled through the infield for a single, but it was a poor decision independent of result.
During Loney’s days as a prospect, he would put on shows in batting practice. Spraying line drives all over the field and mixing in the occasional display of power potential has the tendency to catch eyes. Loney still shows off impressive raw power in glimpses. In the at-bats I saw, Loney launched two tape-measure shots foul. Alas, dreaming of the day when Loney’s raw power gains usability seems to be a folly of youth. Loney’s single-season career-high is 15 home runs, set back in 2007, and he has not topped 12 home runs in a season since 2009.
Loney is a good defender. His arm serves as a reminder that he was once a legitimate pitching prospect. Soft hands allow him to catch the ball and make difficult plays in the dirt. Loney’s reactions are, at worst, average. No one will mistake Loney as fast, but he does offer more agility than bulkier first basemen. This shows up on the basepaths, as Loney takes the extra base a fair amount during the run of play.
The selling point here is price. Loney is in no position to haggle over money or years. Yet he’s a sound bounce-back candidate given his skill set and athleticism. The drawback to signing Loney is that, even at his best, his offensive production places him in the bottom-third amongst first basemen. In a weak free-agent market for first baseman, the Rays’ interest in Loney will depend on how the trade market shakes out.