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James Loney appears to be Rays' odd man out

James Loney was more than willing to answer a few questions during an amicable weekend phone chat about his future with the Rays, which has become increasingly uncertain through their series of offseason moves to improve the offense.

But he wanted to ask a couple of questions, too.

Most pointedly, "What do you think? You think I'm going to get traded?"

Ultimately, that's the million-dollar question. Or, technically, the $8 million question, given a salary that would be second highest among the Rays.

With spring training about to start, Loney certainly seems to be the odd man out.

In trading for Logan Morrison then signing Steve Pearce, the Rays added two potentially powerful hitters who would fit in best playing first base (more so than the outfield) or DH. Then they traded for Corey Dickerson and indicated they plan to keep their other outfielders, making him likely the primary DH.

To me, to you, to scouts with other teams, to people who work around and for the Rays, it appears Loney has been left without a job.

But not necessarily to Loney.

He plans to head to Port Charlotte next week with the idea that he is still very much their first baseman.

"Oh yeah, for sure," Loney said. "I would think so. That's my thought process going into it."

Though admittedly not following all the moves that closely, Loney isn't ready to accept that there isn't room for him.

"You're always just trying to make your team better, at whatever position that is," he said. "Tampa (Bay) is always known for bringing guys in that can play multiple positions. So you never know exactly where someone is going to play if they play multiple positions. …

"I know that with (John) Jaso being gone, I know there's a spot there at DH. And that we've got a few outfielders. They haven't said anything to me. I'm just going in and getting ready for the season."

Loney would have a stronger case if he were coming off a better 2015 foundation.

Though he missed 51 games due to injury (oblique strain, fractured finger), his overall performance was disappointing: a decent .280 average, but run production far from it — four homers and 32 RBIs in 104 games.

That has always been kind of the rap on Loney — that he played smooth defense and could hit for average but didn't produce like a typical first baseman.

And of the 27 big-leaguers who played 100 or more games at first last year, he ranked in the bottom three in homers and RBIs and with a .680 on-base plus slugging percentage.

"Last year was tough," said Loney, who turns 32 in May. "With the couple injuries I had, it was just one of those years. It was just a little up and down. I'm just looking forward to this year now."

The Rays put themselves in this position, extending to a three-year, $21 million offer — the largest free agent contract of the Stuart Sternberg regime — after Loney's $2 million mutually beneficial bargain debut in 2013, when he hit .299 with 13 homers, 75 RBIs and a .778 OPS while playing stellar defense.

But now the bill is coming due. Saving the $8 million, or even part of it if they have to eat a couple million to facilitate a deal, would be good, especially given his dropoff in production. But creating the playing time for the new pieces in their lineup is the priority.

Again, Loney doesn't see why he should be the one to go, pointing out that he has been their best hitter — in batting average — during his time here.

"If it's just on my salary, okay, that's one thing," Loney said. "But over the last three years I led the team in average, you know (at .291). So I don't think it's necessarily a performance thing based off last year. But you never know."

Loney said he understands trades — and trade rumors — are part of the business, especially now. And he gave no indication such a scenario, even though it's kind of a baseball version of dead man walking, would bother him, much less leave him moping or being a negative influence.

David DeJesus was in a similar position last spring, with no position and rampant speculation. But the Rays hung on to him, and when Jaso got hurt opening day then Desmond Jennings went down in April, DeJesus became a key part of the lineup until being traded in July. Loney knows that even if he stays now, that could happen, too.

Officially, the Rays aren't saying anything beyond that they like to have plenty of options and that the depth is a good hedge given the potential for injuries. They have to be confident Jennings is ready to play every day, Morrison is a good enough first baseman, and more. When pressed, baseball operations president Matt Silverman acknowledged that if everyone is healthy, they "probably have one too many."

Loney has been working out in San Diego, keeping busy with his and Nadia's second son, 3½-month-old Aidan, plus soon-to-be 3-year-old Jordan. He has been around enough to know he doesn't know what's going to happen and can't control anything except working hard to be ready to be — somewhere.

Told it was my guess he was going to be traded, Loney said he had one more question:

"Before spring training, or during?"

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.

James Loney appears to be Rays' odd man out 02/15/16 [Last modified: Monday, February 15, 2016 9:09pm]
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