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Long-term deal for Loney a costly mistake by Rays

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney (21) in the dugout during the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox in Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The Tampa Bay Rays told Loney he would be either traded or released.
Published Apr. 3, 2016

Whether by trade for a small return or release, the Rays today will acknowledge an expensive mistake when they part ways with 1B James Loney, paying most, if not all, of his $8 million salary for him not to play for them.

In this case, the error was made in December 2013. Having gotten a solid return (.299 with 13 homers, 75 RBIs and a .778 on-base plus slugging percentage) after picking Loney up on the cheap ($2 million) the year before, the Rays wanted to keep him around.

But the price, in terms of dollars and years, climbed as other teams, the Brewers and Pirates specifically, were interested. Typically, the Rays walk away when that happens. I specifically remember a team official saying at those winter meetings they would not go to a third year.

But then they did. The three-year, $21 million deal struck by Andrew Friedman was technically the largest free agent signing the Rays have made during Stuart Sternberg's ownership.

Loney dropped off a bit offensively, and defensively, in 2014. But he seemed to fall considerably more out of favor with a further decline last year, even more so when the Rays allowed him to go home to California during a midseason DL stint and he came back noticeably out of shape.

As opportunities presented during the offseason for potential changes — with the additions of Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce to share first, with Corey Dickerson taking the DH at-bats they could have had — the Rays made the decision to move on. They have been trying ever since to trade Loney, with no bites.

If they do before today's noon deadline to set the 25-man roster, it will be only because a team (White Sox? Rockies? Astros? Pirates?) wanted to be sure to get him enough to give up something small, or pay some of that $8 million.

Otherwise, the Rays will end up releasing Loney, he'll sign elsewhere for the major-league minimum ($507,500), and the Rays will pay the rest. That puts Loney on an ignominious list with Pat Burrell and Grant Balfour as costly errors in judgment. Not a place of honor.

COOKING WITH GAS: In an (expensive) effort to provide more players with healthy food options, the Rays built a restaurant-style kitchen in the home clubhouse and hired a full-time chef.

Healthy eaters such as RHP Chris Archer and 3B Evan Longoria were among the players pleased with how the team reacted to the request, as nutrition has become an area of focus. In the past, most of the pre- and postgame food was restaurant catered, so there was little control over ingredients and limited variety.

"It's not going to 100 percent organic quinoa and kale, but there's going to be grilled chicken and fish, and there's going to be Philly cheesesteaks and bratwursts, too, instead of just that," Archer said. "So I think it was a huge move by them, really, looking out for the team like that."

MAKING A PITCH: Naming actor George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) as today's first-pitch tosser was obviously a marketing department move, given how every release says his appearance is "courtesy of Budweiser." Couldn't the Rays have done better? Commissioner Rob Manfred will be there but is said not to like that spotlight. Still, no politician? No former Rays great? (Dan Johnson, having given up on becoming a knuckleballer, is available.) No local celeb? What about newly elected football Hall of Famer Tony Dungy?

RAYS RUMBLINGS: In hosting a pair of sold-out exhibitions, Montreal folks were again chatting/fantasizing about the potential of the Rays relocating. But the weekend games could work to the Rays' benefit, as the Jays played there Friday-Saturday and weren't due back in St. Petersburg until late Saturday night. … C Rene Rivera handled his unexpected release last week very professionally, which is to his credit. … Four offseason acquisitions made the opening day lineup (SS Brad Miller, C Hank Conger, Dickerson, Morrison) and four others the roster (LHP Dana Eveland, RHP Danny Farquhar, RHP Ryan Webb, Pearce). … ESPN's Buster Olney picked Archer to win the AL Cy Young Award and LHP Blake Snell, who is starting at Triple A, the rookie of the year award. … ESPN counterpart Jim Bowden says Dickerson "will be a solid addition, but he won't provide the pop the Rays so badly need." … Four ex-Rays are on the Pirates: 1B John Jaso, OF Matt Joyce, LHP Kyle Lobstein and INF-OF Sean Rodriguez, with INF Cole Figueroa a potential fifth.

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