After the 2005 Dodgers went 71-91, it was evident something needed to change. Jason Philips wasn’t cutting it. Ricky Ledee wasn’t cutting it. So that off-season, the Dodgers finally did something that was long overdue, committed to a youth movement. They traded the headache that was Milton Bradley for a young outfielder named Andre Ethier. After a combination of Sandy Alomar and Dioner Navarro struggled early, they gave the catching duties to a young backstop named Russell Martin. When Eric Gagne and Yhency Brazoban went down from injuries, they brought up young arms named Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo. And when Nomar got hurt towards the end of the season, they brought up James Loney.
Now it’s 2010. The Dodgers are coming off back-to-back NLCS births and have a roster built on those young players. Andre Ethier is coming off a monster season where he hit 31 homers, including 4 walk offs. Russ Martin, even though he had an off year, is a two-time all star with a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger to his name. Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo make up two of the most important pieces of the best bullpen in baseball. And then there’s James Loney. After a great 2006 campaign, James Loney followed it with a solid 2007, in which he posted a .919 OPS. In 2008, his numbers dipped to below where the Dodger front office expected and in 2009 he put up below average numbers yet again.
To be fair, James Loney was never touted as a power hitter. He hit .371 for the Great Falls Dodgers in 2003, was voted the 4th best prospect in the 2004 Arizona Fall League and put up a ridiculous .380 average in AAA Las Vegas in 2006, before being called up. But in a league dominated by Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder, Loney seems to come up a little short. His .295 career batting average is not bad, but it’s certainly not what the Dodgers had hoped. He still plays good defense, but not the Gold Glove defense that some expected. This is where James Loney’s case gets interesting. If Loney is going to keep putting up numbers that indicate he’s a below average first baseman offensively and an average first baseman defensively, how long can the Dodgers afford to hold onto him? With a monster free agent class this coming year, including Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, Adam Dunn, Victor Martinez and possibly Albert Pujols, can the Dodgers afford to give Loney another chance if he doesn’t produce this year? Bill James, famous for his approach on baseball statistics, predicts a 15 home run season for Loney and a .800 OPS. If Loney puts up those types of numbers, can the Dodgers let him stay in the starting lineup?
My prediction for Loney this season is that he’s going to break out. Peter Gammons and the MLB Network reported earlier this off-season that he’s been working on finding his power, and if he can show 25 home run power this season, he’d be a huge help to a Dodger offense that may have to make up for the pitching staff this year more so than any year in recent memory. However, if his numbers look like what Bill James is predicting, the Dodgers may be looking for a new first baseman this off-season.