Tampa Bay Rays Acquire Undervalued Assets in James Loney and Yunel Escobar

Mark ReynoldsCorrespondent IIDecember 5, 2012

Loney makes the Rays cheaper, younger, more contact-oriented and better defensively at first base next season.
Loney makes the Rays cheaper, younger, more contact-oriented and better defensively at first base next season.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

When the Tampa Rays signed James Loney to a one-year, $2 million deal on Monday, it didn't take long for the derision to begin on Twitter:

Loney is certainly a flawed player. He doesn't have the power numbers that one typically associates with an offensive position like first base. He's coming off of a season in which he hit just .249/.293/.336 with six home runs—all career lows. He's an unmitigated disaster against left-handed pitching.

Yet, the focus is too often on what players don't do well instead of on what they do bring to the table. In the case of Loney, he brings plenty to the table for the Rays.

The most important thing he offers to the cash-strapped Rays is a willingness to work cheaply. The team's payroll has fluctuated in the $40-$70 million range since 2008, always near the bottom of the league.

If Loney wasn't coming off of his worst season, there's almost no way the Rays would be able to afford him. They have approximately $65 million already committed to the roster for next season when factoring in the guys already under contract, the pre-arbitration players and the arbitration-eligible ones like David Price.

Loney also has youth on his side. He'll turn 29 next season, so there's a reasonable chance that he's due for some type of bounce-back in 2013.

While he doesn't have much pop for the position, he does bring an above-average glove with him to the field. First base isn't typically associated with defense, but a run saved is just as important as a run created, and Loney saved eight runs with his glove last season.

Loney also rarely strikes out—making it a decent bet that his batting average shoots back up next season.

He's a lifetime .282 hitter with a .305 career batting average on balls in play. Last year those numbers dropped down to .249 and .269 respectively despite an uptick in his line drive rate, suggesting bad luck was a major culprit for his struggles.

This isn't the first time the Rays bought a cheap asset on the free agent market to play first base, either. In 2007, they signed free agent Carlos Pena to a cheap one-year deal, and he broke out in a big way by hitting .282/.411/.627 with 46 home runs.

In 2011, they singed Casey Kotchman to a cheap one-year deal after he hit just .217 for Seattle, and he bounced back by hitting .306 for the Rays.

The Rays also signed Fernando Rodney last winter to a one-year deal with a club option even though he was coming off a season in which he walked 28 hitters in 32 innings with a 4.50 ERA. Last season Rodney threw 74.2 innings, walked only 15 hitters and put up a microscopic 0.60 ERA.

Jeff Keppinger was coming off a lousy season last winter after hitting .277/.300/.377. He hit .325/.367/.439 after the Rays signed him to a one-year deal in free agency.

Of course, not every move the Rays have made has worked out under general manager Andrew Friedman. Pat Burrell was released after just 24 games in 2010 during the second year of his ill-fated deal with the Rays, Manny Ramirez failed a drug test after just five games in 2011, Carlos Pena didn't work out the second time around last season and Luke Scott didn't live up to expectations last year, either.

Yet, to compete year in and year out in the belly of the beast that is the AL East on a shoestring budget, most of the Rays moves have to work, and they often do. That's why they deserve the benefit of the doubt with Loney as well as shortstop Yunel Escobar, whom the team traded for on Tuesday.

Escobar is on his fourth team in three years after wearing out his welcome in Atlanta and then in Toronto—where he earned a suspension for wearing eye black with an anti-gay slur written into it last season.

The Marlins took him back in a blockbuster trade with the Toronto earlier this offseason, but they immediately worked to move him before he could ever play a game in their uniform. Besides the character questions, there are also performance issues surrounding Escobar.

He had an excellent year in 2011 with the Jays, but that's sandwiched between two seasons of mediocre play. 

Yet, Escobar brings the same things to the table as Loney does with the added benefit of being able to play a premium defensive position well. 

He just turned 30, making him young enough to return the level of performance he displayed from 2007-2009 with Atlanta and in 2011 with Toronto. He also comes cheaply.

The Rays gave up only a marginal prospect to acquire Escobar, who is due $5 million next year with $5 million club options for 2014 and 2015.

He rarely strikes out, which, combined with Loney's propensity to avoid the whiff, should help improve the team's fourth worst contact rate from a year ago.

In acquiring Loney and Escobar, the Rays bought low on two assets that are good bets to bounce back from poor seasons in 2012. Both players come cheaply, will improve the defense, the offense's ability to make contact and should have bounce-back seasons with better luck on balls in play.

The Rays have had five straight winnings seasons despite their meager resources—winning 90 plus games four times and making the postseason three times during that span.

Not every move they make works, but this is one organization that has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt given their track record of turning water into wine.