It is a simple question, one with no good answer. In a practical sense, the Rays have been shopping the first baseman for at least a few weeks so far this year, but have evidently found no takers at their desired price. Loney’s compensation exceeded 10% of the Rays’ total payroll in 2015, and his cost could approach $9.7 million for 2016. For that level of investment, the team had a right to expect Loney to perform well in the heart of the order, and not be a "below average hitter in general". His -1.3 WAR last year was at the bottom of the American League, and Tampa Bay finished second-to-last in Wins Above Average at the first base position throughout the majors. On top, or actually beneath, all of that is the fact that Loney will turn 32 in May.
That underwhelming offensive output, injury notwithstanding, continued a three-year slide that began when he came over from the Dodgers, and that trend does not bode well for any real improvement in 2016. When the team acquired Logan Morrison, Steve Pearce, and Corey Dickerson over the winter, each with better power than Loney’s, the writing was all but chiseled into the wall that his days by the Bay were numbered. But why now? Why not earlier?
The most likely reason is that the minor league cupboard is still pretty bare at first base. Neither Jake Bauer nor Casey Gillaspie have shown the slugging power that would be nice to see in major-league-ready prospects at first, and Richie Shaffer (who is already on the 40-man) has yet to show he can hit at the big league level. Faced with the absence of home-grown alternatives to this point, Loney has probably represented the best bad option for the team. That particular pressure, of positional scarcity, eased with the trade for Morrison and Pearce’s FA signing.
Another reason that Loney may still be a Ray is that he represents depth. In case of emergency, break glass. In case of spring injuries to Morrison and Pearce, trot out Loney; better a .270 bat with an adequate glove at first than the aforementioned not-ready-for-primetime players. Even that scenario probably wouldn’t raise his value to anywhere near his $9 million cost, but he’d at least be able to tend the position until the A-team returned to the field. This rationalization, too, became moot with the signing of Pearce to back up Morrison. Three-deep at first, especially at low-output levels, is a luxury the Rays simply can’t afford.
Regardless of the reason, however, it appears that the Rays are simply waiting for an acceptable proposal from another team in order to cut ties with James. It isn’t as much a case of institutional inertia as it is pure player economics and, while that offer may not come until late March, as other teams deal with their own injury angst, it will arrive.