Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE
The Rays could be starting the Winter Meetings with a bang, as they are reportedly close to signing defense-first free agent 1B James Loney.
Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports is reporting that the Rays are close to signing free agent first baseman James Loney. ESPN's Jim Bowden is calling it a one year deal, naming Loney as the replacement for Carlos Pena.
Acquired by the Red Sox in the Punto trade, James Loney was previously a 2.4 WAR contact hitter with the Dodgers in 2011. The following season he was struck down by a .269 BABIP while he increased his swings outside the strike zone and batted a mere .249/.293/.336 with six homers in 465 plate appearances.
Loney finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2007, and was a 2002 first-round pick. In spite of that attention, the only year that Loney came close to matching the offensive production expected of a first baseman was two years ago, in his age-27 season with the Dodgers.
As noted by Fangraphs' Eric Seidman:
First basemen typically hit better than most other positions, so the bar is stacked higher for Loney's production to begin with. Since 2009, the offensive environment has suffered, and the average first base wOBA has dropped from .355 to .343 to .337 to its current .329 mark. Over the same four years, Loney has posted respective wOBAs of .332, .315, .329 and .270.
The only year that comes close to league average for his position is 2011.
If that year should prove to be an anomoly, the Rays may be signing an extraordinarily weak bat at a normally powerful position. Even still, Loney's lefty swing provides a significant advantage in splits against RHP. In 2011, he held a .350 wOBA and 125 wRC+ against righties, and may not have a problem reaching those numbers again - his career splits include a .341 wOBA and 111 wRC+.
Furthermore, Loney is known as a defense-first player, posting a career high 12.1 UZR/150 in 2012. He also boasts excellent contact, with strike-out and walk rates that mirror a prior defensive-oriented first baseman for the Rays.
Essentially, James Loney is the younger incarnate of Casey Kotchman.
Meanwhile, Bowden's rumors of Loney replacing Pena are likely premature.
While details are not final, I would first expect the signing to be a minor league deal, but maybe the Rays see the same magic in Loney as they did in Kotchman, and chose to lock him in with a major league contract. The veteran Kotchman was signed to a minor league deal in 2011, and never would have seen playing time if not a perfect storm of injuries. He went on to defy all odds and have a career year in Tampa Bay.
Another option is that the Rays could use Loney in a platoon at first base.
In the same tweet, Bowden reported that the Rays are talking to the Nationals about a trade that would send a starting pitcher to DC for Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa. This would invariably hinge on Adam LaRoche returning to Washington next season, but would give the Rays significant flexibility.
If acquired, Morse could spend the majority of his time in left field - with Desmond Jennings shifting to center - but fill the void at first base against southpaws, with Loney on the bench as a defensive replacement. Morse has no career splits to speak of.
Loney earned $6.375 million last season.
UPDATE 10:30 AM: Jerry Cranick reports the deal is done, confirming the details above, pending a physical.