Humans are especially good at pattern recognition. Instinctively, we have the ability to see how pieces of data interact with each other, and we're able to extrapolate meaning by filling in the blanks. But it doesn't take a genius puzzle-solver to explain the pattern behind the Rays' most recent free agent agreement. On Monday, reports surfaced that the team has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with free agent first baseman James Loney. And it's just the kind of decision that has characterized the team's plan for filling the hole at first base for the past few years.
Loney spent much of 2012 with the Dodgers, before moving to Boston mid-season. And Loney fits a certain type of Rays profile: he's not much of a hitter with power, but he plays decent defense and was willing to sign with the Rays on a short-term, low-money contract compared to many first-base peers. While the instinctual prototype first baseman probably looks and hits like Mark Teixeira, the Rays seem to go after guys who hit like middle infielders, and it doesn't matter what they look like.
In August, after the infamous Nick Punto trade (sure, we can call it that) that brought Loney to Boston (and a couple of other guys to L.A.), I wrote an article at Beyond the Box Score that compared Loney to former Rays 1B Casey Kotchman. Kotchman, if you missed it, was a fantastic buy-low for the Rays in 2011, as he racked up an unusual amount of hits for the Rays while playing great defense at first base. In 2012, he reverted to the "true" Casey Kotchman in Cleveland, and was a miserable, miserable failure -- potentially one of the worst everyday players in baseball.
This comparison still holds true several months later.
Both players are considered very good defensive first basemen, who don't provide much of the offensive thump that the prototypical first baseman is supposed to provide. And while Kotchman is considered an excellent defensive first sacker, Loney is merely seen as "good." However, the advanced metrics UZR and DRS both give Loney the advantage in 2012, as Kotchman had a down year according to the (admittedly unreliable) fielding metrics.
The good news is that Loney really is a better hitter than Kotchman. Despite cratering in 2012, Loney has a career 103 wRC+, and that makes him a slightly above-average hitter overall. Kotchman really isn't better than average. The thing is, Loney provides virtually none of the power a first baseman is "supposed" to produce. And given how high the bar is for 1B performance -- in 2012, a down year for first basemen, the average wRC+ for the position was 107 -- Loney is a below-average offensive first baseman by almost any measure. James has only 73 career home runs since his debut in 2006, and his career slugging percentage of .419 wouldn't look out of place for a second baseman.
2012 was an unmitigated disaster for Loney, and easily the worst season of his career. Most WAR metrics saw him as being worse than a Triple-A first baseman or the average waiver wire pickup. The trick will be proving that 2012 was an aberration, not the new normal for James. He'll need to bring his walk rate and BABIP back up (which will raise his OBP), and go back to at least hitting a few balls for doubles and HR. If he can do that, and perhaps come closer to his career 103 wRC+, he can be a real major-league player.
And, more than anything else, the Rays probably signed Loney for reasonable value. James will make $2 million in 2012, a number that fits squarely in the Rays' price range. With a need to fill a number of holes, and not much payroll to do it, the Rays didn't bet big on a Mike Napoli or Nick Swisher-type. And if this cost savings lead to something like, say, signing a Ben Zobrist or David Price to a longer-term deal, I hardly think Rays fans will complain, no matter how bad Loney stinks in 2013. There's always another replacement-level player available if Loney does falter a la Carlos Pena in 2012.
Signing James Loney is a failsafe, perhaps. But if this is a player who gets 145 starts or more at first base, I do fear that the emphasis will be on the "fail" part of "failsafe." However, if Loney is used as a platoon bat, or as a placeholder or replacement as the Rays look to target a different first baseman, then this is a pretty decent deal. The important things to remember are two-fold. First, the Rays had to add value on a very limited budget, and in order to do so, they added a player with significant risk. This type of move has paid off in the past for Freidman and company, and there's a chance it will do so again. Second, James Loney was better than he was in 2012 in every single season of his career, and his decline doesn't have to be absolute. He's a player entering his age-29 season, so it's not as if he's an aged vet already in a decline phase. There is hope.
But hope or no, Loney's not likely to be a panacea for the offensive woes that ail the Rays. The team will need to add offensive value at other places on the diamond, be it DH, LF, or even in the middle of the diamond. But this is the same story we've seen for years in Tampa Bay: the team will gather low-priced assets and slot them in at first as needed. Sometimes these moves pay off, like in the cases of Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger. Other times they work out about as well as Luke Scott and Carlos Pena's second tour of duty. But those are the risks you have to take when running a team in Florida these days.