ST. PETERSBURG — Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said they liked their 2013 team so much that they're trying to "keep the band together."
Whether that includes ace lefty David Price, a subject of trade rumors, remains to be seen.
But in officially announcing on Friday the re-signing of first baseman James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal, Tampa Bay will come back with its infield intact. There's a price to pay for that, though, as Friedman acknowledged their payroll — with Price — is projected to be higher than the franchise record of $72 million in 2010.
"I think it's an unaffordable figure for our franchise," Friedman said. "But I think it's something that (principal owner Stuart Sternberg) has been very steadfast in doing everything he can and putting our best foot forward to win as many games as we possibly can as we continue to build a foundation and fan base in this area.
"But it's certainly not a sustainable number in terms of where we are revenue-wise. But we felt like we had a really good chance to be great next year. That's why we're doing what we're doing."
Loney, who agreed to terms Dec. 13, said he always hoped to return to Tampa Bay, where he had blossomed in his first year and enjoyed the loose clubhouse atmosphere fostered by manager Joe Maddon while reaching the playoffs again. As a free agent, Loney wanted to explore his options with the Brewers, Pirates and Astros among the interested.
But with Loney saying the money was "around the same," he went with what he believed would make him happiest.
"I thought this was going to be the best option," Loney said. "This is where I wanted to be."
The feeling was mutual. Friedman said it was a priority to keep their infield of four Gold Glove finalists together. With third baseman Evan Longoria in a long-term deal and the 2014 options for second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar picked up, they just needed Loney, who provided a security blanket at first while hitting a team-high .299 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs.
Friedman said he was "optimistic" they could bring Loney back but that was mostly "wishful thinking," and he didn't know for sure.
While it's the biggest free agent deal the Rays have given since Sternberg's ownership group took over in 2005, Friedman said they considered it more like an extension, having gotten to know Loney.
"We're extremely happy to have him back," said Friedman, whose 40-man roster is now full.
Loney got some security — and hefty raises — after making $2 million last year, coming off a rough 2012 during which he was traded from the Dodgers to the Red Sox. He received $5 million up front in a signing bonus with a $1 million salary for 2014, $7 million in 2015 and $8 million in 2016.
"It's pretty rewarding. Last offseason, I put a lot of work into getting better and being the type of player I expect myself to be," Loney said. "I was confident last year was going to be a great year going into it, and I'm glad it all works out.
"You end up in the place you're supposed to be."