Dec 2, 2013

Rays likely turning attention to first base

James Loney, Rays' 1B in 2013
James Loney, Rays' 1B in 2013
Courtesy: Keith Allison/Flickr
Saturday, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote that with the Rays having likely re-signed Jose Molina along with having two bullpen pieces in Mark Lowe and Juan Carlos Oviedo in place that the Rays will likely turn their attention to first base. Topkin also notes potential candidates The Rays could trade for "the Mets' Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, Texas' Mitch Moreland, Miami's Logan Morrison, [and] the Angels' Mark Trumbo". Free agent candidates noted are "Justin Morneau, incumbent James Loney, Corey Hart, maybe Kevin Youkilis or Mark Reynolds." Topkin also mentions that "[in] theory, the Rays would prefer a left-handed hitter, given their everyday lineup already has four right-handers".

I know many fans expected James Loney returning in 2014 to be a forgone conclusion. How could you not? Loney was valuable in 2013. Offensively he hit .299 with 13 HRs and 75 RBIs. At one point in 2013, actually at several points, he was our hottest hitter. Defensively he was a finalist for the AL Gold Glove at 1B with a .995 Fielding %, committing only 7 errors. However that seems no longer to be the case. And really it shouldn't surprise anyone. The Rays have always done what they can to spend as little as possible but get the max in return. This why we lost Johnny Damon a few years ago. Damon said he wanted to return. Many thought it was a foregone conclusion. In the end, the Rays signed Luke Scott instead (which didn't please Damon). The world kept spinning. It looks like we're approaching that situation again where we could end up with someone other than the current fan favorite at a position in the next season.

Now, would I want to see Loney back in 2014? Of course. However, I can't help but wonder, is there a better option out there? So let's at two other candidates and see if so.

First let's look at Miami's Logan Morrison. Obviously, he's not a free agent so a trade would have to take place. Morrison is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility and is due to be a free agent in 2017. Morrison is coming off his first season post right knee surgery. He played in 85 games in 2013 for the Marlins, hitting .242 and slugging .375. Here's a table from Baseball-Reference.com listing his offensive production in his career so far.

As the table shows, so far in his career, he's been average. And if the Rays were to acquire him, I can't see that changing under Derek Shelton, who, if you've been reading BRaysball Talk for a while now, you know I'm a very vocal critic of. However, what sells me on him is his defense and his goofy personality. First his defense, here's a table of his stats as a NL first baseman, again, from Baseball-Reference.com. What we can see from this is that he's a very good first baseman. A career .996 fielding %, and only 3 career errors at the position.

But most notable about LoMo is his personality. He's known for being quite the quirky character, which the very laid back locker room of the Rays, should allow him to excel on the field as well as off of it. Just take these two links (1, 2) as examples.

Moving on we have free agent Kevin Youkilis. Here's what I wrote last year in my article about the search for offense in 2013 about "Youk".

The guy has had a few down years for various reasons, ranging from nagging injuries to nagging managers (Looking at you Bobby V.) So Youkilis will be looking to prove he's still worth something. He has nice power when healthy however he, like Pena, is strikeout prone. He struck out 69 times in 80 games with the White Sox last year. But the guy finished in the top 6 for MVP voting twice and is a three time All-Star with a Gold Glove. He would be looking to return to his 2008 form where he hit nearly 30 HRs. Since he will be looking to prove himself, he could go for cheap on a 1 or 2 year deal. Yeah, he's naturally a third basemen, but he's also proven he can play first.

Obviously, Youk eventually signed with the Yankees on a 1-year deal and he only played 28 games in 2013 due to, you guessed it, nagging injuries. So he will still be looking to shake the nagging injuries that have plagued him the past few years.

Stats wise, Youkilis hit .219 with 31 strike outs with only 2 HRs in those 28 games. So yeah I can see the hesitation. If the Rays signed him it would take a year like his 2008 or 2009 year to make the signing really memorable. But it's happened before in Rays history, a guy thought a wash-out is signed and comes plays for the Rays only to amaze and make jaws drop. Remember Carlos Pena's 2007 campaign? Fielding for Kevin is different story. He's always been pretty solid at first despite being a natural 3B. In 9 seasons and 613 games at first base, Youkilis has only 13 Errors and a .997 Fielding % at first base. So he's not questionable at all on defense.

The thing about Kevin Youkilis though is he as a temper with a capital "T". The biggest example of this I can think of is the benches clearing brawl he initiated after being hit by a pitch from Rick Porcello in 2009 (video). So would that jive with the Rays fun laid back attitude? I don't know. It might calm him down or not.

In the end the decision of who the best choice is up to Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon. But in this writer's humble opinion I say this: no matter the cost, bring James Loney back to Tampa Bay in 2014. I honestly don't see a better option and it seems stupid to me to break up an infield that was all nominated for Gold Gloves and had the second fewest collective errors in baseball in 2013. So yeah, he'll be more expensive than he was in 2013, but in the end...it will be worth it.

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