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James Loney: the quiet first baseman

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In his fourth year with the Rays, he has much to prove at a contested position this Spring.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After his strong performance 2013, the Rays felt the need to sign James Loney to a three year, 21 million dollar contract. As is the case with most free agent contracts, this deal does not look good heading into the last season.

Last year Loney dealt with his first disabled list stint in his career after straining his right oblique on April 8, which caused him to miss two weeks. A broken middle finger on May 25 forced him to miss another five weeks.

What can we expect for James Loney in 2016?

Offense

Year G PA BB% K% AVE OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2013 158 598 7.4% 12.9% 0.299 0.348 0.430 0.339 117
2014 155 651 6.3% 12.3% 0.290 0.336 0.380 0.318 107
2015 104 388 5.9% 8.8% 0.280 0.322 0.357 0.294 88

The 3 year decline does bode well for your soon to be 32 year old first baseman. There are some things to like, though, include the high contact rate that could be useful if he is able to leg out a few more doubles.

Last year we saw Loney lose what little power he had, leading to a career low .077 ISO. He made more contact, only striking out in 8.8% of plate appearances, but the contact he made was not up to the standards that Loney had set in his career.

Year Soft Med Hard
2013 13.2% 58.1% 28.7%
2014 18.1% 57.4% 24.5%
2015 17.6% 63.6% 18.8%

Last season Loney didn't hit the ball hard enough to bring any power to the plate. Although he isn't a power hitter, he needs to find enough extra bases to make use of his contact. This profile would look fine for a middle infielder, but is hard to stomach out of your first baseman.

Here are his splits isolated for Right Handed Pitchers:


PA BB% K% AVE OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2013 432 7.9% 11.1% 0.299 0.352 0.446 0.346 122
2014 470 7.7% 10.2% 0.304 0.355 0.407 0.337 120
2015 299 6.4% 7.4% 0.296 0.341 0.372 0.308 97

James Loney's bat has received almost all of its value while facing right handed pitchers. A bounce back coming close to replicating his 2013-2014 numbers could be of use to this offense.

Projections

System PA BB% K% AVE OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Steamer 332 6.5% 12.0% 0.273 0.322 0.381 0.306 95
ZIPS 498 6.2% 11.6% 0.275 0.319 0.368 0.299 91
PECOTA 599 6.3% 12.8% 0.277 0.323 0.388 0.307 96

All three projection systems see a very similar hitter that bounces back a little from his 2015 numbers. If the Rays are able to shelter him against most left handed pitchers he could be useful. The Rays won't be relying on his bat to carry the team, and he has the potential to impact the Rays defensively.

Superior defense?

Year Innings UZR DRS FRAA
2013 1277.2 6.1 4.0 -1.6
2014 1334.0 -1.5 -1.0 -5.3
2015 815.1 -2.4 -2.0 1.1

*UZR and DRS are found at fangraphs.com and FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) can be found in the Baseball Prospectus Handbook (link to book).

Coming off an above average defensive 2013 season Loney has seen his defense land him just below average the last two seasons. There is room for optimism if you prefer FRAA, which sees Loney coming off his best defensive season with the Rays.

There are things that Loney does well such as scooping throws and turning the double play due to a strong arm that makes up for his limited range and footspeed. The narrative that Loney is a good defensive first baseman, however, might be more myth than fact.

Baserunning

Year BsR BRR
2013 -2.3 -2.7
2014 -5.8 -5.5
2015 -9.6 -5.7

*BsR is the Base Running metric found at fangraphs.com and BRR is the Base Running Runs found in the Baseball Prospectus Handbook.

Last year James Loney was absolutely atrocious on the base paths. Loney will never be confused for a good base runner, but if he doesn't improve from last season I don't think there's hope that his bat and defense can overcome this big of an disadvantage.

According to the fangraphs.com base running metric James Loney posted the second lowest rate in the league,  costing the Rays 9.6 runs on the base paths and behind only Billy Butler of the Oakland Athletics. Loney was able to accomplish this in only 388 plate appearances. Hopefully the reported weight loss this offseason will translate into better base running this coming season.

What To Expect?

I agree with the projections that we will likely see some bounce back from last season and land somewhere around his 2014 stat line offensively.

The $8MM is something we can't do anything about and is a sunk cost. Coming off such a dramatic dip in performance due to his multiple injuries in 2015, if he were a free agent I'm not sure he would even get a guaranteed major league contract.

I think Loney will be given the first month to prove he can be effective as the starter, but if he can't perform at least as an effective platoon first baseman, he will find himself being designated for assignment.

If he is able to rebound, he will continue to be a fixture in the lineup against right handed pitching, and continue to be a great clubhouse presence.