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Loney proves good fit with Tampa Bay Rays

James Loney had the highest percentage of line drives last season (29.8 percent of batted balls) among all hitters who qualified for the batting title.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

James Loney had the highest percentage of line drives last season (29.8 percent of batted balls) among all hitters who qualified for the batting title.

The Rays extended themselves in bringing back 1B James Loney with a three-year, $21 million deal that is the largest given to a free agent in Andrew Friedman's tenure.

But they had their reasons.

For one, what he does in the field. Loney is an elite defender, arguably among the top handful in the game. He was a finalist for the Gold Glove award that went to Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, and sabermetrically tied for fourth in the AL in defensive runs saved (four) and was third in ultimate zone rating (6.1).

For another, what he does at the plate. Obviously Loney doesn't have the power of a classic first baseman, never hitting more than 15 homers, but the Rays rave about the quality of his at-bats.

He had the highest percentage of line drives last season (29.8 percent of batted balls) among all hitters who qualified for the batting title. He had the lowest strikeout rate (1 per 7.7 plate appearances) of all first basemen; only five players hit as well (.299) and fanned at a lower rate. He led the Rays in hitting with runners in scoring position (.310) and with two strikes (.230).

With five righthanded hitters in the everyday lineup (Yunel Escobar, Desmond Jennings, Evan Longoria, Wil Myers and either Ryan Hangian or Jose Molina), the Rays needed Loney's lefthanded bat for balance. (And Loney hit lefties just as well, .299 vs. both sides.)

And though Loney, 29, is somewhat quiet publicly, manager Joe Maddon noted several times he has a strong presence on the bench and a good personality in the clubhouse.

Loney's new deal validated his decision to sign with the Rays for $2 million last season, taking a cut from $6.375 million in a poor 2012 to get the chance to play regularly and rebuild his value. The third year likely was of more concern to the Rays than the $7 million average, but with limited other options that became the price of doing business.

With Loney done and no indication anything is close on a David Price trade, the Rays presumably will turn their attention to filling out their bench, having been connected to veteran infielders including Jamey Carroll, Mark Ellis and Kevin Youkilis. They might add to the bullpen. And they still have C Jose Lobaton to trade, and possibly OF Matt Joyce.

GOOD DEEDS: After generating about $20,000 at a Friday fundraiser, Maddon has a busy week ahead, serving Thanksmas meals at three Salvation Army shelters and two other sites around Tampa Bay, then heading to his Pennsylvania hometown for a weekend of events tied to his Hazleton Integration Project.

Maddon has prepared and provided Thanksmas meals to needy citizens since 2006, and wants to expand the project. "It's kind of amazing that it's our eighth year now," he said. "The growth of it and how people have really adopted getting on board with it … that's really kind of gratifying." For details or to donate, see joesthanksmas.com.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Price — wearing a TB camo cap — joined several current and former Rays on Friday checking out the cool new Ducky's sports lounge, co-owned by Longoria, and Maddon's well-attended event at 717 South in Tampa. … Myers was there, too, sporting a somewhat tamer just-trimmed hairstyle. … Slow development track and the shadow of Buster Posey aside, it's still a tough break for INF Tim Beckham to tear his ACL after finally getting to the majors in September. … RHP Alex Colome, out last season with elbow issues, should be full-go in spring training. … Curious that the Mariners gave newcomers Corey Hart and Logan Morrison the numbers worn last season by Taijuan Walker and Nick Franklin, two players who could be in involved in a Price deal. The team said it was unrelated. … Longoria and teammates won a share of MLB's Oddity of the Year GIBBY (Greatness in Baseball Yearly) award for the hidden ball trick against the Dodgers on Aug. 10.

Around the majors: Free-agent RHP Bartolo Colon, 40, and the Mets finalized their deal for two years, $20 million. … Fox Sports reported that the Dodgers and 3B Juan Uribe agreed on a two-year deal.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

. Fast facts

Museum tickets

Tickets go on sale Monday for the Feb. 1 Ted Williams museum induction dinner at the Trop, benefiting several charities. The event is called Dinner with Ben Zobrist & Friends, featuring David Price, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. Honorees include Craig Biggio, Johnny Damon, Frank Howard, Dwight Gooden, James Shields and Jim "Mudcat" Grant. Tickets for the dinner, ceremony and autographs are $125, available at raysbaseball.com or (727) 534-5343.

Loney proves good fit with Tampa Bay Rays 12/14/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 14, 2013 8:16pm]
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