Posted December 14, 2013

With three-year deal for James Loney, Rays are committing to mediocrity.

James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays
James Loney and the Rays agreed to a three-year, $ million extension. (Mike Carlson/AP)

James Loney and the Rays agreed to a three-year, $21 million contract. (Mike Carlson/AP)

The Tampa Bay Rays came to terms with first baseman James Loney on a three-year, $21 million contract Friday. A year ago, Loney was coming off a brutal 2012 season and a free agent for the first time. The Rays signed him to a one-year contract worth just $2 million and Loney went on to have something of a career year in 2013. That was a tremendous bit of fortune for the Rays, but their decision to double-down on a longshot that paid off is unlikely to result in similar bounty.

The hard facts on Loney are that, in his six seasons as a full-time major leaguer, he has hit .280/.336/.404. In 2013, the average major league first baseman hit .251/.337/.436. Loney has spent his career hitting in pitchers parks, but his OPS+ over those six season has been 102, while the average major league first baseman’s OPS+ in 2013 was 116. James Loney has a reputation as a good fielding first baseman, but the advanced statistics don’t support it. They say he has been below average in the field over his career. Loney will be 30 in May, which doesn’t mean he is old, but he is on the downside of a peak that never happened. In his age-27 to -29 seasons (his last three) Loney hit .281/.329/.398.

Loney’s career year in 2013 produced a .299/.348/.430 line and a 118 OPS+. Again, the average first baseman that season hit .251/.337/.436 with a 116 OPS+. Loney was barely above average in what stands as a career year. In those six full seasons, Loney has never hit more than 13 home runs or drawn more than 41 unintentional walks. He’s a career .285 hitter, but when his average dips — and it’s almost sure to do so in 2014 given that his .299 this past season was his highest mark since  2007, as was his .326 batting average on balls in play — his value collapses. Going forward into his age-30 to -32 seasons, the ones the Rays just paid $21 million for, being an average first baseman would seem to be Loney’s ceiling, one of which he’s likely to fall short.

Loney isn’t even a particularly good bet to keep the Rays from falling back to replacement level at first base. In 2012, when his batting average collapsed to .230, he was more than a win below replacement according to two different wins above replacement statistics (Baseball-Reference’s version and Baseball Prospectus’s WARP). The Rays’ first base outlook might be a tad rosier if they provide Loney with a right-handed platoon partner, but that would just be throwing more money at a problem they just created by giving too much to Loney in the first place.

The first base market is admittedly thin, there are other teams still looking to fill first-base holes (primarily the Pirates and Brewers), and the best available free agent, Kendrys Morales, has draft pick compensation attached to his price. Their choices were limited, to be sure, but for the low-budget Rays to make a three-year commitment to Loney effectively handcuffed them to that thin market. Loney’s contract isn’t huge in terms of dollars, but will likely be one the Rays come to regret nonetheless.

20 comments
RyMichNob
RyMichNob

This article doesn't hold a candle to mediocrity. 

BestTampaSportsFan
BestTampaSportsFan

3 Years Is not a life time. Maybe this writer is confused and thinking of Carlos Pena. Rays regret loosing the World Series not signing players. Rays are hoping Loney will produce but they will be fine no mater what Loney does. Maybe Mediocrity is really motivation misspelled looking at Loneys stats as a Ray

Hendo
Hendo

You tell us how the Rays made a mistake by signing Loney but you never mention any other names as possible upgrades. No offense, but I will trust Andrew Friedman's team building skills over yours any day.

dancluley
dancluley


WOOOOOOO! Awesome!

"Committing to Mediocrity" LOL. If Loney is Mediocrity I'll take it! Loney is a perfect fit for the Rays. Good Defense, clutch hits, and good in the clubhouse. (I expect last year was an above par year, but he is solid nonetheless). That is a big $ contract, but hey, what else were they gonna get as a better option for the money in the FA market?

Now we just need a real LH DH, ship joyce out for that, and we are a WS contender. (also I would like a shutdown closer, but they may be thinking one of the recent acquisitions can fill that role). 

MNRob
MNRob

I don't understand how a player with a career .285 average is mediocre.

Zimbear
Zimbear

Loney is a good fit for the Rays.  We will have one of the best defensive infields in baseball this year.  He hits line drives instead of homers, but he gets on base and moves runners around.  I expect him to have a great season this year, now that things are settled.  He is always smiling, always hustles and works hard every game.  Look at the film as well as the numbers and you'll see that he's an excellent all-around player.  That's what it takes to be a Ray.  Welcome home, James!

Rax
Rax

WARP, JAWS, OPS. Are we talking about baseball or computer programming?

mkmck69
mkmck69

"Loney went on to have something of a career year in 2103."


I would say two things...if Loney is even alive in 2103, it'll be a career year no matter what he does, and if Cliff knows what those numbers will be in 2103, could you clue me in on what the Mega Millions numbers will be for that $550 mil drawing next Tuesday? 

Squatter
Squatter

Is Loney a DH? You rattle off a bunch of offensive numbers, but no defensive numbers. Let us know why Loney was a Gold Glove finalist in 2013, please. You can keep this article up about him being mediocre, but you should've mentioned that you are only referring to the 4 times he comes up to the plate.

hans k
hans k

I won't doubt Fieldman, Silverman, Sternberg and Maddon.. The past shows it...

Davos1
Davos1

What you really need is for more than 30 people to attend your games.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@MNRob There is more to it than just batting average sir.  The article said over his last three seasons (his age 27, 28 & 29 seasons which are many players best yrs) he only had a .329 on base percentage.  The league average varies yr to yr but it's usually around .332 to .334 for the average on base percentage.  


So he gets on base a bit less than the league average as a whole and less than the average first baseman too.


Being right at or just below the league average makes one a mediocre player.


Also, his fielding is just good or decent too.


Also, combine his OPS for the past 3 seasons is only .727 which isn't even mediocre actually, it's worse than that.


Very little power to speak of as well.  Even with his .285 batting average, he still is NOT getting on base enough as evidenced by his below league average on base percentage.


All things considered, he is mediocre.  

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@Zimbear  With all due respect sir, he does NOT get on base.  Per the article, his on base percentage over the past three seasons, his age 27 to 29 seasons, his on base percentage was BELOW league average.


Yes, he seems to be a good guy, no argument there.

parkbrav
parkbrav

@RaxOther than the mush of "baseball stats" being presented, where is the baseball analysis in this presentation of James Loney? The Rays are notoriously shrewd when it comes to picking baseball players. John Maddon is well known for his love of swing plane. Where is the baseball stat for swing plane?

parkbrav
parkbrav

@RaxI completely agree with an echo your sentiment!

Squatter
Squatter

@Davos1There it is! The obligatory Rays attendance comment. I even saw it in an article about the sun's rays.

ChrisJones1
ChrisJones1

Your comments are foolish. I suggest that James Loney is the best fielding first baseman in major-league baseball.

Zimbear
Zimbear

@Sportsfan18@ZimbearI wish he would hit 50 HRs, but I'll take the near .300 BA and Gold Glove-caliber defense. Again, my conclusion is that he is an excellent all-around player.  Watch our infield this coming season and you will come to the same conclusion.  He makes the rest of the infield (and the clubhouse) better just by being there.