The single most surprising performance from any player through the first 30-40 games of the Major League season has to be that of Rays’ 1st baseman James Loney. For the better part of the past 5 seasons, the former Red Sox and Dodgers’ 1st baseman has been a punchline to a bad joke. Loney’s offensive production at 1st base was severely lacking for the position’s standard and his power numbers were meager for any player, no matter his position. After being traded to the Red Sox last year’s mega-deal, Loney’s offensive game bottomed out. He hit just 2 homers in 30 games as a member of Boston and his .230 batting average left plenty of seats empty throughout Fenway Park. Entering free agency, Loney’s stock was at rock bottom.
Luckily for Mr. Loney, that’s when Andrew Freidman and the Tampa Bay Rays came calling. You see, the Rays have a habit of turning one team’s trash into their own treasure. They’ve been doing it since Joe Maddon was handed the big job on the bench and thanks to the Rays extra emphasis on defense, the slick fielding Loney seemed like a good fit. There was also the fact that Tampa Bay was not only able to offer Loney a contract worth $2 million dollars, but they could promise the 1st baseman something that could turn out to be infinitely more valuable: playing time.
Loney took the deal and he hasn’t looked back since, joining a long line of players that have blossomed under the leadership of Joe Maddon and his bench coaches. Don’t believe me? Take a look:
2007: Carlos Pena
Maddon’s first year in the sunshine state was a rocky one, as the then Devil Rays racked up 96 losses on their way to a last place finish. But despite all the losing, Tampa Bay was able to find some crucial pieces that would be integral to their 2008 AL pennant-winning run. James Shields emerged as a potential ace for the Devil Rays, topping 200 innings for the first time in his career while posting a sub-4.00 ERA. Akinori Iwamura also showed some potential in his first year in the Majors and a 23-year-old B.J. Upton had a breakout year, hitting .300 with 24 homers. But none of those players can hold a candle to the improvements made by Carlos Pena during Maddon’s first year.
By the beginning of the 2007 season it was fair to say we had seen enough of Pena to know he was a bust. Pena had come up to the big leagues with plenty of fanfare as a member of the Texas Rangers, but he was never able to quite justify the hype. He’d hit 86 career homers over parts of 6 seasons by the time he reached Tampa, Pena had nearly 200o at bats under his belt. Pena was basically a .240 hitter with some decent pop and a severe strikeout problem that looked to be derailing his career.
That all changed in 2007 when Pena became a monster, hitting .282/.411/.627 (172 OPS+) with 46 homers and 121 RBI. His batting eye improved to the point that Pena was walking more than twice as often as the average Major League player and his power was improved thanks to a more pull-heavy approach. Pena followed his massive 2007 season up with 30+ homers/100+ RBI years in 2008 and 2009 as well before tailing off a bit in 2010.
2008: Dioner Navarro
The entire Rays team could basically be eligible to win the turnaround award this year thanks to a 31 win increase over the 2007 team but that’s beside the point. Catcher Dioner Navarro was by far the biggest turnaround tale from this picturesque season. His .295/.349/.407 triple slash was good enough to get an All-Star nod and Navarro’s defense behind the plate was much improved as well.
In fact, Navarro has yet to come close to matching his two-way production from 2008, spending the better part of the past 4 seasons as a backup. And you can reasonably argue whether or not he should even be doing that. Navarro’s numbers since 2008 are pretty terrible. To wit: .213/.269/.329 (61 OPS+) with 19 total homers and just 75 total RBI. That’s not a whole hell of a lot to show in nearly 900 plate appearances.
2009: Jason Bartlett
Jason Bartlett had a magically 2009 season and he wasn’t the only one by the bay. 2009 can also be known as the Year of the Zorilla because Ben Zobrist was absolutely brilliant all over the field for the Rays, but he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Zobrist hit 12 homers in a 60 game part-time role the year before and his on-base percentage was solid. Both his power and patience at the plate in 2008 suggested that Zobrist was ready to breakout if he got more playing time. Lo and behold, when Maddon gave him more at-bats, Zobrist delivered.
For those reasons, I’m choosing shortstop Jason Bartlett as the most improved hitter from the ’09 season. Bartlett had posted a league average OPS+ just once in his first 3 1/2 seasons and he hardly showed any power at the plate, popping a career-high of 5 homers in 2007.
But 2009 however, well that’s what we in the business call a career year. Bartlett hit for a 132 OPS+ while knocking 14 baseball out of the park, which to this day still accounts for nearly half his career total. Bartlett has also struggled to come withing 70 points of his career-high .320 batting average that year, bottoming out at .133 in 2012 for the Padres, which may explain why he still doesn’t have a job.
The Rays really didn’t have a hitter come out of nowhere in 2010. If you squint hard enough you could make a case for Reid Brignac, but he wasn’t even a league average hitter. Sean Rodriguez also had a nice season filling in around the infield but he didn’t do anything that was out of whack with his career numbers.
2011: Casey Kotchman
Kotchman’s inclusion on the list may be one of the most unbelievable. In his 3 seasons before coming to Tampa Bay, the burly 1st baseman hit .254/.316/.378 (86 OPS+) with an average of 10 homers and 58 RBI a year. Kotchman played solid defense and didn’t strikeout a whole lot between 2008-2010, which is good, but he didn’t do a whole hell of a lot either.
But then 2011 happened and Kotchman went bananas. He hit .306/.378/.422 (127 OPS+) while setting career-highs in batting average, hits, OBP, and wins above replacement. Combine that kind of offensive production with a glove like Kotchman’s and you have the recipe for a winning player.
Unfortunately for Kotchman the good times were gone just as fast as they got there. He’s got a .223 batting average since 2011 and his .277 on-base percentage ranks as the worst in among all 1st baseman in baseball over the past two seasons.
2012: Jeff Keppinger
If you want to throw $12 million dollars down the drain, spending it on Jeff Keppinger would be a good start. The White Sox gave the former Rays utility player a 3 year/$12 million dollar deal before the start of the 2013 season and thus far it’s looking like a poor investment, to say the least. Keppinger was handed that deal on the basis of a .325 9 homer, 4 triple, 40 RBI year for the Rays a season ago and those are numbers he hasn’t even approached this season.
Keppinger is hitting just .193 for the White Sox and most of the reason he’s struggling stems from his impatience at the plate. Keppinger has taken 121 plate appearances to draw precisely as many walks as you or I have drawn this season (hint: that’s a big, fat zero) and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP for short) has fallen nearly 100 points below the MLB average.
Keppinger just continuously gets himself out at the plate, to the point that pitchers hardly even have to work when they oppose him, knowing that anything near the zone will probably merit a swing. Chicago’s already considering their options just 35 games into a 3 year contract, which is never a good thing.
It really says something about the quality of the Rays organization and their front office to continuously find diamonds in the rough year in and year out. He and his brain trust understand that to compete with a tiny payroll in the big, bad AL East, the Rays will have to get creative. These guys were all low-cost, low-risk players, which is exactly the type that general manager Andrew Friedman looks for. Every one of these players was acquired from another organization at very little cost to the Rays. These are the kinds of things the best-run teams take advantage of and nobody runs their team better than the guys in Tampa.