Rays position analysis: First base
The offseason has arrived, and the time has come for the Tampa Bay Rays to study what went right and wrong from a season that ended short of October.
In the coming weeks, we’ll break down the Rays at each position. The review will include highlights and lowlights for the players that saw a majority of the action there, and we’ll touch on the possibility of their returns.
To start is first base, where veteran James Loney is the Rays’ clear answer at the position. He was given a three-year, $21 million deal last January, which was Tampa Bay’s largest free-agent contract awarded under current ownership led by principal owner Stuart Sternberg.
Loney, an American League Gold Glove Award finalist in 2013, saw his defensive play decline this season as part of an overall slip by the Rays’ infield. Still, outside of third baseman Evan Longoria playing in 162 games, no one was used more often than Loney, who played 155 times.
What he did right: He’s not known for power (nine home runs), but Loney again proved to be consistent at the plate. In 155 games played, he finished with a team-high .290 batting average and 69 RBI, which were second only to Longoria’s 91. Loney’s .716 OPS was sixth on the team, and his 174 hits paced the Rays. He played in 152 games at first base, so he was Tampa Bay’s workhorse at the position. For the most part, he has proven steady and valuable in his two seasons with the Rays, and it’s understandable why he was offered stability with them.
Where he needs to improve: His performance in the field dropped this season compared to his showing during the 2013 campaign, when he was named an AL Gold Glove Award finalist. He committed nine errors compared to seven in 2013, and he had a .992 fielding percentage compared to his .995 from the previous year. Overall, his WAR dropped from 2.7 in 2013 to 1.5 this season. The Rays’ infield wasn’t as dynamic this season, so Loney wasn’t alone in his decline. But stronger defense next year would serve him well.
Contract status: Signed through 2016 as part of a three-year, $21 million deal.
Likelihood of return: Loney saw an increase in innings played in the field this year — 1,334 compared to the 1,277 2/3 he had in 2013 — so that’s a sign of how much the Rays value him. He has become one of Tampa Bay’s most consistent presences at the plate the past two seasons, and if he can clean up his defensive play next year, he’ll be that much more well-rounded. Still, the Rays are in good shape at first base as long as he stays healthy.
What he did right: He made 14 starts (18 games played) at first base, serving to give Loney a rest on occasion. The 18 games at first base were second only to the 23 appearances he made at second base this season. He also was seen at third base (nine games), left field (17), right field (two) and shortstop (one). His power was a pleasant surprise this season, and he finished with 12 home runs and 41 RBI, both career-high totals. He saw an uptick in his at-bats this year with 237, compared to the 195 he had last year.
What he needs to improve: Rodriguez can use more refining on defense. Despite his ability to play both in the infield and outfield, his lack of consistency as a fielder has hurt his attempt to become an everyday player. He committed three errors this season, an increase from one last year. His defensive WAR was -0.6 this season, a decline from his 0.0 total last year.
Contract status: Second-year arbitration eligible. He made $1.475 million last season on a one-year deal.
Likelihood of return: He’s an interesting case. Rodriguez can become a free agent after next season, so it wouldn’t be out of the question to consider that the Rays could try to package him in a trade to receive some value. He has been a serviceable presence off the bench, especially against left-handed pitching. But with Logan Forsythe and Nick Franklin maturing as versatile talents as well, Rodriguez could be replaceable.