Let me first start this off by saying that I like James Loney. Loney was a member of the young core of home-grown Dodgers which came up to the Dodgers around 2006. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, and Russell Martin were all part of this player group we have watched and rooted for these past few years. It is inevitable that some prospects just don’t pan out. Whether it is the fact they can’t adapt to big league pitching, they don’t live up to expected potential, or they just may simply have a good year or two and plateau. Unfortunately Russell Martin moved on from the Dodgers, and he is now playing with the New York Yankees. Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Andre Ethier have become cornerstones of this contemporary Dodger team. James Loney, on the other hand, has regressed from his first couple of seasons as a Dodger. His recent decrescendo since last season has been frustrating, puzzling, and a bit sad. What happened to James Loney?
That is a question that all us Dodger fans have been asking. We can accept the fact the Loney will never be a huge power-hitter like Matt Kemp, but so far in 2012 he is only hitting .233 with 8 RBI, and he has only one lonely homerun (through 5/13/12). He hit a career-high 15 homeruns in 2007. Loney had around 90 RBI from 2008-2010, but last season he only managed 65 RBI. Loney is a career .286 hitter, but he hasn’t hit anywhere near that this season. Are we satisfied with 10-12 homeruns, 65 RBI, and a mediocre batting average from our corner infielder? How long can we let him tread water before we gather ourselves and move on?
It’s a tough situation to sort out. James Loney, the left-handed hitter from Texas, was one of the Dodgers’ top minor league prospects. In 2006, James was names the Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year. He led all of baseball, including the Majors and the Minors by hitting .380 while playing for the AAA-Las Vegas 51s. Loney would get the call after Nomar Garciaparra was placed on the DL in 2006. Loney made his MLB debut on April 4, 2006 against the Atlanta Braves, and he hit a single in his first Major League at bat versus John Smoltz. Later that season on September 9th, Loney collected 9 RBI in a game against the Colorado Rockies which broke a 56-year old Dodger franchise record held by Gil Hodges. We had very high hopes for Loney at that time, and the Dodgers did too.
Loney eventually took over first base from Garciaparra in 2007. That year he finished 6th in the voting for the Rookie of the Year Award. The following year would be Loney’s best year to date as he became the Dodgers starting first baseman. In 2008, Loney finished with a .289 average and 13 homeruns and 90 RBI. He led the team with RBI throughout the whole season.
What makes letting go even more difficult is that we have shared some good memories with James Loney. We will never forget October 1, 2008. In Game 1 of the NLDS, Loney hit a grand slam homerun off of Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster helping the Dodgers win 7-2. Perhaps this was Loney’s pinnacle at this point.
In 2009, Loney put up almost identical numbers to ’08. He hit .281 with 13 homeruns and 90 RBI. The next season his stats dipped a little. He hit .268 with 10 homeruns and 88 RBI in 160 games.
Last season we all lived through Loney’s horrendous first part to the season. He finally picked up his pace late in the year, and we noticed that he was using a new swing. In his final month to the season, he was downright hot. His good numbers toward the end of the season countered his poor performance earlier in the year. He finished 2011 hitting .288 with 12 homeruns and 65 RBI. That was his least amount of RBI since his rookie season.
After an offseason car accident and arrest for suspicion of DUI (charges were dropped due to lack of evidence), Loney started the 2012 season meekly. Through his 33 games played, he is hitting an abysmal .233 with 1 homerun and 8 RBI. He has seen his playing time decreased as Don Mattingly has increasingly been sitting him out against left-handed pitching. With the recent call-up of Scott Van Slyke, who can play first base, it is becoming apparent that Loney may be getting slowly squeezed out.
There are definitely upsides to James Loney. Defensively he is fantastic. He plays the perfect balancer to Dee
Gordon‘s bumbling throws to first base by using his tall stature and quick reaction time to make run-saving picks and plays at first. He is smart and agile at the first base corner, and he rarely errs. He has just one error on the season this year. Loney also is very dependable, and he is able to play in nearly every game. He’s never been disabled. That’s a valuable facet to a player.
The Dodgers signed Loney to a 1-year $6.38 million deal this offseason. Still, the Dodgers were apparently not very confident with their 28-year old first baseman, and they made a significant offer to Prince Fielder during the offseason. Fielder signed with Detroit, and Loney was left in L.A. I wasn’t heartbroken when we lost out on Fielder, but that doesn’t lesson my concerns with Loney.
Loney may very well pick up like he did last season and eventually even out at around .280 with 10 homeruns and 65 RBI. At this point in the season, I would be very happy with numbers at that pace. Yet his current statistics do no put him on pace for a typical Loney season. The bigger picture makes us question whether we are satisfied with our first baseman putting up those typical Loney numbers in the first place. First base and third base have had very little run production in the lineup this season. Gathering runs should not be solely on the backs of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
James Loney narrowly escaped an almost accepted fate of being non-tendered last season after his phoenix from the ashes comeback. I do not think he will be able to avoid the hammer this time unless he turns things around and fast. First base is a Loney place-for now.