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MLB Free Agents: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of James Loney

Felipe Melecio focuses on James Loney’s free agent opportunities this offseason and looks back at Loney’s accomplishments as an MLB prospect.

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney

Oct 7, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney (21) hits a single against the Boston Red Sox during the fifth inning of game three of the American League divisional series at Tropicana Field. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our hot stove baseball coverage by now focusing on James Loney’s free agent prospects this offseason. But first, we will focus on his past. Not just the last three years of his career, but we also take a drive down memory lane and look back at James Loney, Major League Baseball prospect.

People forget that Loney was once considered a top-notch prospect coming up the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system. Drafted in the first round of the 2002 draft out of high school (Texas), scouts were looking forward to see what he could do as a big league pitcher. The Dodgers had other things in mind as they saw enough to picture him as the team’s first baseman of the future. In his first two years of pro ball, Loney posted a BB:K of 0.69, an OPS of .821, hit .301 along with 59 doubles. He was off to a roaring start.

A quick look at his scouting report and it’s plain to see why the Dodgers were eager to switch him to a full-time player. Most notable was his swing as it was described as “a thing of beauty,” according to John Sickels of ESPN. He was projected to hit for both average and power in the majors. Besides his swing, Loney showcased his tools as a solid defensive first baseman and advanced plate discipline.

Just how good was Loney ten years ago as a prospect? Sickels went on to proclaim that Loney would be in the conversation as the best prospect at his position. He was not alone as the mighty Baseball America also gave Loney high praise. Here’s a small list of achievements:

2002

  • Top prospect in Dodgers’ organization
  • Ranked 34th among all prospects in baseball
  • Top prospect in the Pioneer League

2003

  • Fourth best prospect in Dodgers’ system (also finished fourth in 2004)
  • Seventh best prospect in Florida State League

2004

  • Ranked ninth among all Southern League prospects
  • Southern League’s best defensive first baseman

2005

  • Ranked eleventh in Dodgers’ system

2006

  • Ranked fourth in Dodgers’ system
  • Best hitter for average in Dodgers’ system
  • Twelfth best prospect in Pacific Coast League
  • Best defensive first baseman in Pacific Coast League (would duplicate that honor in 2007)

2007

  • Loney would finish with a .919 OPS in 344 at bats with the Dodgers.

Unfortunately, that would be the highest mark of his career. Since then, Loney has been an ordinary hitter at first with an above average glove; sort of like this generation’s version of Mark Grace. Just when it looked as if Loney would be relegated to a backup role, he goes on to have a bounce-back 2013 campaign. To put last season in perspective, here’s Loney’s production in the last three seasons:

James Loney: Production

Year

Age

BB%

K%

OBP

SLG

ISO

UBR

wSB

wOBA

2011

27

7.2%

11.5%

0.339

0.416

0.128

-0.2

0.3

0.328

2012

28

6.0%

11.0%

0.293

0.336

0.088

0.1

-1.7

0.272

2013

29

7.4%

12.9%

0.348

0.430

0.131

-2.0

-0.3

0.339

Looking back, Loney’s 2013 campaign was not that spectacular, but it does look impressive when comparing it to a dreadful 2012 season. Otherwise, the 2013 numbers are very similar to what he posted in 2011. So why the sudden change in production from one season to the next? Many would point out that as a member of the Dodgers, he was a victim of his own ballpark, Dodgers Stadium. However, that does not explain why his struggles continued in 2012 after getting traded to the Boston Red Sox.

For better insight, we take a look at his Batted Ball Rates:

James Loney: Batted Ball Rates

Year

Age

BABIP

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB%

2011

27

0.309

22.4%

40.5%

37.1%

6.3%

6.9%

2012

28

0.269

24.7%

45.8%

29.4%

6.2%

5.3%

2013

29

0.326

29.8%

42.2%

27.9%

6.0%

9.8%

The sirens should have gone off almost immediately. In 2012, Loney posted the lowest Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP, per fangraphs, “measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits”) of his career. What Loney lacks in power, he makes up for it by being a line-drive hitter. However, despite his approach, Loney could not overcome his bad luck and a bad BABIP.

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