ST. PETERSBURG -- Free-agent shopping for the Rays usually begins in the bargain bin.
Like used cars, some ballplayers just need a tuneup and maybe a little body work. Fortunately for the Rays, they have done a good job of identifying the free agents with a little tread left on the tires while managing to avoid the lemons.
James Loney is the latest to reaffirm that the Rays' front office has a knack for evaluating free agents who fit their frugal economic parameters.
Carlos Pena wasn't going to return to Tampa Bay in 2013, which left Rays fans to ponder who might become the team's next first baseman. Some thought Jeff Keppinger might be considered for full-time duty, given his contribution in 2012. Other possibilities included Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott.
Typical of how Tampa Bay management operates, the player the team ended up signing wasn't on the fans' radar, or that of the many rumor mills circulating names to fill the position. Loney seemed to come out of nowhere when the Rays announced at December's Winter Meetings they had signed the former Dodgers and Red Sox first baseman. With 49 games left in the season, the decision to sign Loney now appears to be one of the better decisions made by any team during the offseason.
While Tampa Bay does a lot of things differently than other Major League teams, executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman made the decision sound easier than it was initially perceived.
"James has been one of the better defensive first basemen in the game for a while, and fit right in with our emphasis on defense," Friedman said. "But he's also demonstrated good natural hitting ability, especially against right-handers, and a contact bat that adds a different dimension to our lineup. We felt that with everything he brings to the table, he had a real chance to thrive in our environment."
On the back of Loney's bubble gum card, the 2012 season read like a story of decline: .240 batting average, six home runs and 41 RBIs in 144 games. Those numbers added up to Loney being affordable for the Rays, who signed him to one-year deal for $2 million -- with an additional $1 million available in performance bonuses.
Loney is not one who outwardly frets, but after last season, the veteran began looking for answers. How had his numbers dwindled from a typical year like 2011 -- when he hit .288 with 12 home runs and 65 RBIs -- to his 2012 numbers? Known to be an analytical sort, Loney figured he could look at video and figure it out.
"Just something I needed to straighten out," Loney said. "I just tried to visualize that feel."
You could say Loney found what he was looking for, and the Rays are the ones benefiting from his discovery.
On Friday night, Loney returns to Dodger Stadium for the first time since the Dodgers traded him to the Red Sox in last season's blockbuster deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles. Loney enters the three-game series hitting .307 with 10 home runs and 51 RBIs.
Following a long line of quality fielding Tampa Bay first basemen that includes Travis Lee, Pena and Casey Kotchman, Loney has more than held his own. Rays manager Joe Maddon believes Loney makes a throw to second base better than any first baseman he's had, and third baseman Evan Longoria went a step further.
"He's probably the best [first baseman] I've played with as far as total package," Longoria said. "Carlos and Kotch, both great defenders, and both, obviously at times, showed how good of hitters they could be. But I think [Loney's] calming influence, the way he plays the game, the way he cares about the game, just everything in general, to take nothing away from those other guys, but he is probably the best total package I've played with over there at first."
Loney's calmness under pressure is another of his endearing traits.
"I think for the most part, we have a team that's not an emotional up-and-down team," Longoria said. "But it definitely is something that is a positive, a great thing for the team. Every team has one or two guys who are emotional and up and down. You know, you need those guys to counteract that -- to be the calming influence."
Loney is a pleasant enough fellow, though he's not one to engage in a great deal of conversation, which includes discussions about him being an above-average hitter when he's down two strikes in the count. Of his 115 hits, 43 have come with two strikes. Unlike Loney, hitting coach Derek Shelton wasn't bashful about discussing Loney's proficiency at hitting with two strikes.
"He's a really good two-strike hitter because he has the unique ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball," Shelton said.
Loney shrugged when noting there was no one thing he could point to for his success at hitting with two strikes. But his approach is simple.
"Two strikes, you're up there and know if it's close, you have to swing," Loney said. "But you don't really think about it. Hit something."
A Major League scout pointed out that Loney's confidence in hitting with two strikes allows him to jump a pitcher early in the count, which ultimately, he speculated, would lead to Loney having the best power output of his career.
"It doesn't surprise me that he's having the success he's having, because he was good for the Dodgers," Longoria said. "And I knew that he was a good player and that player was still in there. Obviously, he's still young.
"You hear a lot about guys who need a change of scenery, and usually it's guys who come over here and get a change of scenery, for whatever reason, have some success. So I was excited about seeing him added to our roster at the beginning of the year, and he hasn't disappointed."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.