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.