For their next trick, the Tampa Bay Rays will attempt to make James Loney a good hitter. The Rays have signed the 28-year old first baseman to a contract, as was first reported by Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports. The deal is for one-year and is reportedly worth $2 million. Loney spent six-plus years with the Dodgers before making his way to Boston last season in the blockbuster that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto to Los Angeles (aka The Nick Punto Trade). Loney finished 2012 with a .249/.293/.336 batting line to go along with a .272 wOBA and six home runs.
Loney represents a replacement for Carlos Pena at first, where his excellent glove should fit right in with the Rays tight defensive infield. His bat, though, is another thing altogether. Loney can’t hit left-handed pitching. Loney can’t hit right-handed pitching. Loney is probably best suited for a platoon at first or as a situational defensive replacement. Then again, this is the Tampa Bay Rays and what’s happened in the past matters little because taking a flyer on a scrap yard player is how they do.
It hasn’t always been so bad for Loney with the bat. He posted a .331/.381/.538 triple slash line in 375 plate appearances in 2007, even hitting .319 vs. left-handers. 2007 was nearly six years ago, though, and it’s been a steady decline leading up to his arrival in the American League East last season. The former first round draft selection registered a career-low 29.4 FB% in 2012, while swinging at the highest percentage of pitches outside the strikezone of his career. The Rays have a recent history of strong defensive presence at first base, as well as a propensity to draw walks (see: Pena, Casey Kotchman). Plate discipline is the thing, and Loney doesn’t have it.
Alas, I could bemoan the negatives of James Loney all day, but none of that will matter come next July when Loney is rejuvenated at the plate following some quirky tweak that the Rays have made to his approach. Maybe they’ll have him change his stance, or develop some sort of timing mechanism that helps him with his discipline, or maybe they’ll perform an experimental surgery that supplants his thumbs with carrot sticks. Whatever the case, I’m opting to reserve judgement on this deal for the Rays because history has taught me that no career can be deemed a complete wash before the Tampa Bay Rays attempt to salvage it.