ST. PETERSBURG — Having James Loney return on a three-year contract keeps the Tampa Bay Rays’ airtight infield together for at least one more year, and possibly longer if the 2015 team options are picked up for Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist.
What manager doesn’t want an infield filled with four Gold Glove-caliber infielders? But Rays manager Joe Maddon sees Loney’s return as something equally important in another area.
“To really be good, and be good for a period of time, the continuity matters,” Maddon said.
The Opening Day lineup on March 31 could look a lot like the one that faced the Red Sox in Game 4 of the ALDS if Maddon goes with outfielders David DeJesus, Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers.
Executive vice president Andrew Friedman and Maddon have done well with one-and-done players during the playoff years — Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd in 2008, Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano in 2010, Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman in 2011.
Now, they get the opportunity to keep the ball rolling with largely the same group that won the AL wild card.
The 2010 AL East championship team is thought to be the best club in franchise history based purely on talent. The Rays felt they could have returned to the World Series if they could have found a solution to Rangers lefty Cliff Lee.
Yet, that team was scattered to the wind because of free agency or mounting contracts.
A large number of the 2014 Rays will remember Jonny Gomes and Co. celebrating near the mound at Tropicana Field after the Red Sox eliminated the Rays in Game 4 of the division series.
“I think we have a better chance to get beyond the first round just by having the same group together for longer, because there’s the same motivation to get back,” Maddon said. “You don’t want to be denied. I think the same group together has a chance, theoretically, to get you deeper in the playoffs.”
Catcher Ryan Hanigan signed a three-year extension in November after being traded to the Rays. Maddon sees the three-year commitment to Hanigan along the lines of the three-year deal with Loney and the fact that Evan Longoria is under a long-term contract and Jennings and Myers are years away from free agency.
“If you can stay together for a period of time, and if you’re good and you have a philosophy on how you do things, it gets to the point where you have that one heartbeat, where guys play off one another better and have better familiarity and camaraderie,” Maddon said.
The Rays are still looking for another arm in the bullpen, and Grant Balfour, now that the Orioles have rescinded their contract offer because of what the team said was an issue with Balfour’s shoulder, is looking for a place to play.
Money could be an issue, since the Orioles offered a two-year, $15 million deal. But Balfour saved 62 games for the A’s the past two seasons (64 during his three years with the club) and has said in the past that he wouldn’t mind returning to his old team.
Balfour’s agent, Seth Levinson, released a statement Friday in which Rays team physician Koco Eaton said the MRI on Balfour’s elbow and shoulder for his physical with the O’s look the same as the ones taken during his physical with the A’s after the 2010 season.
Balfour pitches extremely well when motivated. You think he would be motivated to prove the Orioles wrong by pitching for an AL East team?
Also, think of the ninth-inning options for Maddon: Juan Carlos Oviedo (92 career saves), Heath Bell (168 career saves) and Balfour.