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April 20, 2011

Selling Loney

The (Potentially) New-Look Dodgers

by Mike Petriello

The Dodgers, as a semi-great man once said, are who we thought they were. Just as most pundits expected, their generally solid starting pitching has struggled to overcome an atrocious offense, with the heroics of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier put in stark contrast to the abysmal foursome of Juan Uribe, James Loney, Rod Barajas, and Aaron Miles at the bottom of the lineup. The Dodgers entered Tuesday night’s tilt averaging a mere 3.29 runs per game, just slightly above Atlanta and Minnesota for the worst mark in baseball. That is a fact which is in large part why they’re sporting a run differential mark which is worst in the NL and second-worst in MLB, ahead of only Seattle, and is also why you can see them down at 14th in Jay Jaffe’s most recent NL Hit List.

The dichotomy between Kemp and Ethier and the rest of the crew can’t be overstated; as Geoff Young noted yesterday, the duo were earlier this week hitting .424/.493/.602, compared to the unacceptable .202/.254/.282 from their cohorts. It’s actually gotten to the point that Cardinal manager Tony La Russa received a good deal of second-guessing for refusing to break the time-honored chestnut of not putting the winning run on base after Ethier doubled to start the ninth inning down 1-0 on Sunday. Rather than walk Kemp to face Uribe, Loney, and Barajas, La Russa chose to have embattled closer Ryan Franklin pitch to the red-hot Dodger center fielder, and the result was a joyous trip around the bases ending in a dog pile of Dodgers at the plate for Kemp.

While no one ever expected much from Barajas and Miles (the latter mostly seeing playing time due to injuries to Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake and the refusal of the club to play Ivan DeJesus, Jr.), the struggles of Loney and Uribe are far more than even the most negative outlook could have predicted. Uribe, signed to a three year, $21M contract in the offseason, was expected to provide power and defensive flexibility in replacing the punch-less Ryan Theriot (OBP be damned, of course). Loney, it was hoped, would finally break past his three-year streak of being merely an adequate hitter (which makes him a below-average first baseman, of course, as he ranked 23rd in TAv among 1B last year) and take that next step in his age-27 season.

So far, it hasn’t happened for either one. Time after time, the Dodgers have either seen Kemp and Ethier stranded on the basepaths without any support behind them, or entered innings with the bottom of the lineup coming to bat knowing that they had such little hope for production that it would seem to be easier to just skip the entire affair and leave the Dodger pitcher out there to start the next inning immediately.

That may seem a bit hyperbolic, but not as much as you might think. Entering play on Tuesday, the pair ranked as the two worst hitters by OPS in the National League and two of the five worst in baseball, among players with at least 60 plate appearances. (It’s here where we thank Carl Crawford and his still unbelievable -7 OPS+.) It’s actually even worse than it seems for Uribe, because he has three hit-by-pitches inflating his OBP by about 20 points.

For Uribe, the hope is that this is just a small sample size blip to start the season, his suffering under the pressure of living up to his new contract. Due to the deal and the thin state of the injury-stricken infield, he is in no danger of losing his job any time soon.

Loney’s situation, however, is far different. The 2002 first-round pick made his debut before his 21st birthday in 2006, wowing with impressive performances in his first two partial seasons, including 15 homers and a .317 TAv in just 375 plate appearances in 2007. Dodger fans hoping to see that production spread over a full season were disappointed in 2008 (.268 TAv) and 2009 (.276 TAv), seasons which were notable only for the statistical oddity of Loney accumulating the exact same number of plate appearances, home runs, RBI, and stolen bases in both years.

2010 started out better, with a .309/.361/.442 first half, before falling completely apart thanks to a .211/.285/.331 second half that resulted in the worst full season of his career. With his second year of arbitration looming, the lack of power that had been acceptable during his minimum salary years along with the shoddy end to his season fueled questions about whether he would be non-tendered, a fate which he avoided by agreeing to a $4.875M contract for 2011 a week before his hearing.

Still, Loney’s poor finish demanded he get off to a good start this year, and that hasn’t happened. From last year’s All-Star break to Tuesday, Loney’s line stands at just .203/.267/.311. Even worse for Loney’s job security is that, unlike Uribe (who will play no matter what), Barajas (who isn’t exactly threatened by A.J. Ellis and Dioner Navarro), and Miles (who will lose time as Blake and Furcal heal), Loney does have a top prospect gunning directly for his job.

That would be 23-year-old 1B/OF Jerry Sands, who tied for third in the minors with 35 homers in 2010 while winning the organizational Player of the Year award, and who got off to a blazing start in Triple-A this year by homering in four consecutive games.

In my first draft of this article, I initially was talking about how the Dodgers desperately needed to make a change, and wondered how long they could stand to keep Sands in the minors if Loney and the left field crew of Tony Gwynn and friends kept struggling. (I’ve had to temporarily retire the “JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr.” moniker, at least until Jay Gibbons actually gets promoted.) On Monday, the Dodgers made that a moot point by surprisingly calling up Sands to make his debut, far earlier than most had thought. Sands started in left field and hit seventh. He doubled and drove in a run with a sac fly against Atlanta starter Tim Hudson.

Loney showed some life in Sands’ debut by getting two hits along with a nice grab of a liner at first, but it’s clear he’s on notice. Manager Don Mattingly noted that Sands will see time at first base against lefties, and the long-term subject of his primary position might just be answered by the progress of center fielder Trayvon Robinson, who is off to a good start in Triple-A and actually ranked a spot above Sands on Kevin Goldstein’s top 11 Dodger prospect list. If Robinson can continue the great progress he made in 2010, then the Los Angeles native might just be the one who finally rearranges the Dodger outfield to its proper defensive alignment, with Ethier and Kemp in the corners around Robinson. That would also potentially push Sands to first base–and push Loney out of a job.

It’s at this point you might think that whether or not Loney retains his job throughout the end of the season, the potential for a $5M-plus salary in his final year of arbitration and lack of production makes him a guaranteed non-tender, doomed to a future of Triple-A life with occasional big league time–not unlike another recently touted Los Angeles first baseman with a good defensive reputation who didn’t quite make it, Casey Kotchman.

Now, it does seem clear that Loney’s tenure with the Dodgers is drawing to an end one way or another. But what is less clear to me is that he has no future, despite his recent past. That is because he has one massive home/road split, largely unseen aside from players who call Colorado, Texas, or San Diego home. 

Loney

PA

Line

HR

Road OPS improvement

Home

1244

.265/.329/.371

18

--

Road

1259

.303/.357/.488

38

+144

 

 

 

In a nearly identical amount of plate appearances over six seasons, Loney has proven to be two completely different players based on whether he is wearing the home whites or the road grays. It’s not the result of one big year either, because we’ve seen this kind of split in every year of his career, to varying degrees. In Dodger Stadium, Loney is essentially David Eckstein or Brendan Harris, players with career 701 OPS marks that mirror Loney’s home performance—that kind of offense is barely acceptable from a middle infielder, and even less so from a first baseman.

Yet, on the road, Loney’s 845 mark puts him in far better company, including Brian McCann, Luis Gonzalez, Jayson Werth, and Hideki Matsui. The use of raw OPS data is imperfect, I will admit, but the point remains: James Loney will not be successful as long as he his forced to play half of his games at Dodger Stadium.

That means the opportunity is there for an enterprising team to buy low (extremely low) on Loney in the hopes that rescuing him from Los Angeles would help bring out the “good” Loney more often. They would do well to keep him away from lefty pitching as well, where he has another large platoon split of 105 points of OPS. This combination makes letting him hit in Dodger Stadium against a southpaw seem like basically a no-win proposition, and indeed he is hitting just .208/.274/.284 lifetime in such situations–a far cry from his “road against righties” mark of .302/.357/.496.

All of this suggests that there may yet be a useful player in there, if he were to land in the right situation and be used carefully. Which teams, then, might be in the market for such a player, either through trade this year or in the offseason assuming the Dodgers let him walk? There are a few places which stand out, starting in the American League with Baltimore, which has an old and aching Derrek Lee on a one-year deal with no obvious replacement (unless you’re still on board the Brandon Snyder train). The argument could also be made for Cleveland, with Matt LaPorta not yet proven and still able to switch to left field if needed, and Tampa, where the umpteenth Dan Johnson experiment has not started well.  

In the National League, Adam LaRoche is signed through 2012 in Washington, but never seems to stay anywhere longer than a year at a time and should never be seen as a roadblock for anyone–the same could be said for Lyle Overbay in Pittsburgh. Staying in the Central, Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee could all see their incumbent first basemen move on after the season, and there’s the less-likely but non-zero possibility that Houston could sour on Brett Wallace and choose to bring Loney back to his hometown. 

Regardless of where he may land, Loney is an interesting case study simply because no one seems to get his value correctly. The “traditional” community, taken in by a sweet swing and solid RBI totals, continues to overvalue him and considers him to be a vital part of the young Dodger core, along with Kemp, Ethier, Chad Billingsley, and Clayton Kershaw. Conversely, the advanced stats community tends to despise him, generally considering that his lack of production from a power position and defensive metrics that don’t quite match his reputation to equal a very subpar package. (If only to illustrate that last point, I took part in an NL-only draft with several members of this site and other well-known sites just before the season; Loney lasted until the 344th pick. At any given time, there are only 400 players on the sixteen twenty-five man rosters in the league.)

The truth is likely somewhere in between, and though I will shed no tears as a Dodger fan when he finally leaves, let’s not be surprised at all if he immediately turns it around in a new home next year. 

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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