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August 28, 2012

Western Front

When Loney was Better than Gonzalez, and Kotchman was Better than Both

by Geoff Young

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I've wanted to write about this for years, and now that Adrian Gonzalez and James Loney have been traded for each other, I have an excuse. Casey Kotchman wasn't traded for either but in my mind fits in the same group of “Promising Young Southern California First Basemen of the Mid-Oughts” that is as meaningless to the rest of the world as it is cumbersome to say.

But this is my habit. Association by guilt. Say Jake Peavy, I immediately think of Dennis Tankersley. Going back further, mention Ron Oester, and I think of Tom Herr, Glenn Hubbard, Johnny Ray, and Steve Sax. It's a reflex reaction. I can't not think of the other members of a set when I think of one.

This is how Kotchman ends up here, as an awkward third wheel. As Gonzalez was in San Diego and Loney in Los Angeles, so Kotchman was between the two in Anaheim. They are forever inseparable to me because of these geographical, positional, and temporal accidents.

All have moved on to different locales and enjoyed varying degrees of success. Gonzalez has blossomed into a star, while Kotchman and Loney have shown glimpses of greatness surrounded by larger stretches of mediocrity, or worse—by big-league standards, of course. They are good enough to hang around and be derided for not being better than they are, which may not be the most satisfying way to travel through life, but which pays the bills and then some.

Before they proceeded in their divergent directions, Gonzalez, Kotchman, and Loney were highly regarded prospects. What follows is not intended to mock anyone's talent-identifying ability, nor is it intended to diagnose what went wrong in two of the three cases. It simply examines the different paths these three players took, and how where they are now isn't necessarily where we once thought they would be. It serves as a humble reminder that drafting and developing talent is hard. That ranking talent is hard. That baseball is hard.

For the purpose of this exercise, we will lean heavily on the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, specifically the 2003, 2004, and 2005 editions. These volumes contain, among many wonderful things, lists of the top 50 prospects identified by four different experts at a certain point in time. These experts also release a joint yearly top-100 list (hereafter referred to as BA100). We will look at these as well.

First, a quick refresher on where each player was taken in the draft:

Player

Year

Round

Position

Adrian Gonzalez

2000

1

1

Casey Kotchman

2001

1

13

James Loney

2002

1

19

 

2003
Here is what each player did in 2002:

Player

Age

Level(s)

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB

K

Adrian Gonzalez

20

AA

573

.266

.344

.437

17

54

112

Casey Kotchman

19

A

347

.281

.390

.444

5

48

37

James Loney

18

Rk/A+

271

.350

.430

.557

5

31

28

 

And here is how they ranked before the following season:

Player

Josh Boyd

Jim Callis

Will Lingo

 Allan Simpson

BA100

Adrian Gonzalez

29

46

43

49

31

Casey Kotchman

12

13

35

17

13

James Loney

21

47

34

 

Gonzalez wasn't even the most highly regarded first baseman in the Marlins system, ranking second behind the powerful Jason Stokes, who never reached the big leagues due to contact and injury issues. Among first-base prospects on the BA100, Gonzalez trailed Kotchman, the Twins' Justin Morneau (14), Stokes (15), the Cubs' Hee Seop Choi (22), and the Brewers' Brad Nelson (23). The comp given for Gonzalez in his writeup was Rafael Palmeiro.

For his part, Kotchman ranked second among all Angels prospects, behind Francisco Rodriguez and ahead of Bobby Jenks. Fourth in the system? Jeff Mathis. Twenty-first? Erick Aybar. Comps for Kotchman were Will Clark and Mark Grace.

Meanwhile, Loney took the top spot in the Dodgers organization. His swing elicited comparisons to those of Shawn Green and David Justice. A few others from their list have gone onto have major-league careers: Edwin Jackson (3), Joel Hanrahan (8), Franklin Gutierrez (16), Jonathan Broxton (18). The Dodgers' top catching prospect was Koyie Hill (6), who has spent the better part of nine years as a big-league backup. Other catchers in the system included David Ross and Russell Martin, neither of whom cracked the top 30.

2004
Here is what each player did in 2003:

Player

Age

Level(s)

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB

K

Adrian Gonzalez

21

AA/AAA

493

.269

.327

.365

5

39

77

Casey Kotchman

20

Rk/A+

274

.348

.434

.532

10

32

19

James Loney

19

A+

516

.276

.337

.400

7

43

80

 

And here is how they ranked before the following season:

Player

Josh Boyd

Jim Callis

Will Lingo

 Allan Simpson

BA100

Adrian Gonzalez

39

52

Casey Kotchman

13

12

30

22

15

James Loney

29

38

32

42

 

Gonzalez fell off radars after hitting just five home runs in nearly 500 plate appearances. He had surgery following the 2002 season to repair torn cartilage in his right wrist, which may have led to the power outage. There were also concerns about his conditioning and 20-grade speed. The top-ranked prospect in the Rangers organization (he was acquired from Florida in a July 2003 trade for Ugueth Urbina) drew comparisons to Grace for his footwork around the bag at first base and for his doubles power.

In Anaheim, with Rodriguez graduating to the big club, Kotchman assumed the top spot in the Angels system, placing ahead of Mathis, Dallas McPherson, Ervin Santana, and Jenks. The team's 2001 draft was touted as having the potential to “go down as one of the strongest in recent history if Kotchman, Jeff Mathis, and Dallas McPherson all continue on their recent tracks.” That sentence now looks better if you end it after the second word. Despite playing just 64 games in 2003 due to a torn right hamstring, Kotchman hit when healthy, his bat eliciting comparisons to Will Clark and Todd Helton. Number 14 on the Angels list this year? Howie Kendrick.

Loney, meanwhile, slipped to fourth in the Dodgers organization, behind Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller, and Gutierrez. After breaking his left wrist toward the end of the previous season, Loney hit just seven homers at High-A Vero Beach in 2003, leading to inevitable Grace comparisons, although his writeup also noted that Loney was “still growing and projects to hit 30 homers annually.” Elsewhere in the system, Hill (9) paced the catchers, with Martin (18) jumping into the picture. Unranked: Matt Kemp, Shane Victorino.

2005
Here is what each player did in 2004:

Player

Age

Level(s)

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB

K

Adrian Gonzalez

22

AAA/MLB

552

.299

.356

.451

13

41

79

Casey Kotchman

21

AA/AAA/MLB

478

.331

.391

.478

8

31

43

James Loney

20

AA

442

.238

.314

.327

4

42

75

 

And here is how they ranked before the following season:

Player

Jim Callis

Will Lingo

John Manuel

 Allan Simpson

BA100

Adrian Gonzalez

Casey Kotchman

6

10

6

9

6

James Loney

45

62

 

Gonzalez and Loney plummeted due to concerns about power. Gonzalez fell to eighth on the Rangers list, and his comp went from Grace to Doug Mientkiewicz. And we are reminded again that although comps can be useful as rough points of reference, there is a certain danger in relying on them too much. One can envision Maxwell Smart explaining it all to the Chief:

Smart: This kid is gonna be great, another Rafael Palmeiro.

Chief: I don't believe you.

Smart: Would you believe... Mark Grace?

Chief: No.

Smart: Would you believe...  Doug Mientkiewicz?

And so Doug Mientkiewicz becomes shorthand for “not Mark Grace,” which is limited in its utility. Gonzalez's continued drop in status makes the Rangers' decision to give him to the Padres at least understandable, if not entirely defensible. If the Rangers thought they were giving away Mientkiewicz, then the trade for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka makes sense. The problem is that the original comp of Palmeiro in the 2003 book turned out to be more accurate... which nobody knew at the time, which is why trying to project the future performance of young men who haven't figured out what they're supposed to be doing out there can be such an aggravating exercise.

Loney, whom I actually compared to Mientkiewicz in March (I'm a sucker for shorthand... not to mention shortbread, but that's another story), fell to fourth on the Dodgers list after again failing to crack double digits in home runs. The prognosis went from “projects to hit 30 homers annually” to “some have suggested his swing path might not be conducive for big-time home run production” faster than you can say Mient—oh, never mind. Loney's career slugging percentage was .407 in more than 1,200 minor-league plate appearances at this point. (Kemp, if you're wondering, made his debut on the Dodgers list at 28, one slot behind Franquelis Osoria.)

Kotchman again missed time due to injury but played in a career-high 115 games and saw his stock continue to rise. His writeup called him “a leading contender for Rookie of the Year” in 2005. Others of interest in the Angels top 30 included Erick Aybar (3), Kendrys Morales (5), Ervin Santana (7), Howie Kendrick (8), Alberto Callaspo (9), Mark Trumbo (11), Joe Saunders (13), Maicer Izturis (16), Kevin Jepsen (19), and Mike Napoli (29). Given that their top two prospects (Kotchman and McPherson) didn't pan out, it's no surprise that the Angels ranked as Baseball America's top organization. They were loaded with talent.

The five prospects in baseball ranked ahead of Kotchman before the 2005 season were Joe Mauer, Felix Hernandez, Delmon Young, Ian Stewart, and Joel Guzman. The best at first base was Kotchman, followed by Prince Fielder (15), Brian Dopirak (21), Ryan Howard (27), Daric Barton (32), Michael Aubrey (41), and Loney.

* * *

There's a look at three once-promising first basemen whose careers have veered in different directions. Two of them, Gonzalez and Loney, are now forever linked in the minds of fans everywhere. A third, Kotchman, is linked to both in my mind because I'm weird.

There's also a look at the nature of evaluating prospects. Gather a Jenksload of information from reliable sources, make your best guess, and then wait several years for people to call you an idiot for putting Kotchman and Loney ahead of Gonzalez back in the day. Sound like fun?

Of course it does. It's baseball.

6 comments have been left for this article.

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