The biggest pleasant surprise of the Rays season one-fourth the way in — more so than LHP Matt Moore's record and 3B Evan Longoria's consistency — has to be 1B James Loney's among-the-best-in-the-majors hitting. This was a guy coming off a career-worst season, a career low in average (.249), homers (six), RBIs (41), on-base percentage (.293) and on-base plus slugging (.630).
Tossed into the Carl Crawford/Adrian Gonzalez/Josh Beckett megadeal as a take-back by the Dodgers then tossed away by the Red Sox, who had no interest in keeping him.
Basically trashed by his former managers in Los Angeles, Joe Torre saying in December "offensively he's a mystery" and it's puzzling "why can't this guy be a better player?" and Don Mattingly assessing Loney "was kind of trending backward."
And left without a team or much of a demand for his talents.
In other words, a perfect candidate for the Rays — and a chance to become the latest in their growing list of career reclamation projects.
Loney was, in a way, exactly what the Rays look for: players coming off a down or injured year with a past record of success, in their late 20s, on their second or third organization, appreciative of the opportunity and, of course, inexpensive, signing for $2 million after making $6.4 million the year before.
"Really, it's no surprise to me," Longoria said. "Just watching from the outside, I know he had a ton of success in L.A. When they signed him in the offseason, I was excited about having him around because he's one of those guys.
"You look at (executive vice president Andrew Friedman's) track record here and the guys that he's been able to sign that have had really good careers outside of maybe their last one or two years and been able to come here and have success. So it's no surprise to me that he's having the success that he is."
Okay, let's look at some of the others who have been resuscitated
Grant Balfour, RHP
Before: Inconsistent and injured during stints with the Twins, Reds and Brewers, acquired in July 2007 trade for Seth McClung.
During: Became a fiercely effective setup man, coming up from the minors to post a 1.54 ERA during the 2008 run to the World Series while making $500,000.
After: Served Rays well then got paid with a three-year, $12.25 million deal with the A's.
Joaquin Benoit, RHP
Before: Missed the 2009 season recovering from shoulder surgery then was 3-2, 5.00 in middle relief for Texas in 2008.
During: Dazzling season as a setup man, 1-2, 1.34 in 63 appearances while making $750,000.
After: Signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Detroit.
Jeff Keppinger, INF
Before: Was nontendered by the Giants after hitting .255 with two homers, 15 RBIs and a .618 OPS.
During: Hit a team-high .325 with nine homers, 40 RBIs and an .806 OPS despite spending a month on the DL while making $1.525 million.
After: Got a three-year, $12 million deal from the White Sox.
Carlos Peña, 1B
Before: Released by Detroit in March 2006 and spent most of the season with the Yankees' Triple-A team then finished with the Red Sox.
During: Hit 46 homers in 2007 while making $800,000. Averaged 36 homers and 102 RBIs, made an All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and Sliver Slugger, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting twice. (2012 return was not as good.)
After: Made $45 million, including a three-year, $24.125 million extension with the Rays. Now with Houston.
Fernando Rodney, RHP
Before: Had a 4.32 ERA and only 17 saves over two frustrating seasons with the Angels.
During: Posted a record-setting 2012 season, 48 saves (among 50 chances) and a staggering 0.60 ERA plus an All-Star appearance and fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. Is off to a slower start this year. Made $1.75 million in 2012 with a $2.5 million option this year.
After: Just wait; should be in line for a big payday somewhere.
And a few others
SS Jason Bartlett, LHP Randy Choate, 1B Casey Kotchman
RHP Alex Cobb and Joe Maddon were said to be on the same side of the undisclosed "on-field" issue they were caught on camera discussing quite animatedly Thursday, not arguing with each other. … ESPN's Keith Law's first mock draft ahead of the June 6-8 real thing has the Rays taking Lexington (S.C.) High C Nick Ciuffo No. 21 and Gonzaga LHP Marco Gonzales at 29. (Baseball America also pegged Gonzales with the comp pick for losing B.J. Upton.) … Stuart Sternberg was rated the game's fourth-best owner by the New York Post's Ken Davidoff, behind Detroit's Mike Ilitch, Milwaukee's Mark Attanasio and St. Louis' Bill DeWitt, with the notation: "Can you imagine how revered this Goldman Sachs alumnus would be if he ran a team in a real baseball community?" … Asked during an MLB Network Intentional Talk appearance, Evan Longoria said the one teammate he'd probably let daughter Elle date was David Price and one he definitely wouldn't was Luke Scott, suggesting he should be on the TV show Doomsday Preppers. … Maddon was so impressed with the Sol Caribe band that played in the clubhouse Tuesday, he asked about booking them for a Gasparilla party.
Got a minute? Ryan Roberts
Best meal you can make? I can make anything; just depends on what type of food. (Latin?) Chicken mojo with rice and beans and plantains. (Italian?) Lobster linguine. (American?) Good ribs, a good steak.
Must-see TV? I love Dexter.
Band you'd like to be on stage with? The Rhett Walker Band.
Dream vacation spot? Belize.
Favorite movie? I really liked Life of Pi, but my all-time favorite is The Legend of Bagger Vance.