We Always Knew James Loney Would Be Back in 2012

This is a few days old, but I wasn’t able to get to it until now due to the holiday weekend. GM Ned Colletti spoke to MLB Network Radio’s Mel Antonen on Friday, and Antonen dropped this juicy tidbit via Twitter:

#Dodgers GM Ned Colletti says on MLB Network Radio that James Loney will be at 1B for LA next season. Says 20-25 HRs possible.

Short of actually saying a contract has been offered and signed, this is the clearest confirmation we’ve heard yet that Loney will in fact be tendered a contract for 2012, his final year of team control. That should come as absolutely no surprise to anybody, of course; we’ve known for weeks that the 2012 budget is largely tapped out – Hiroki Kuroda‘s return may depend more on finances than whether he wants to come back or not – and there’s absolutely not room to bring in a Prince Fielder to play first base. (Here’s where we grumble that the combined 2012 outlay to mediocre vets Juan Rivera, Mark Ellis, and Juan Uribe would come close to covering the first year of Fielder, but that’s neither here nor there at this point.)

Technically, it’s not a strict choice of “Fielder or Loney”, because you could argue for bringing in a Carlos Pena or Michael Cuddyer type free agent, or trying to cobble something together between Rivera, Jerry Sands, and/or Scott Van Slyke, but let’s not pretend the Dodgers were ever going to do that – nor, I could argue, should they have. Pena and Cuddyer each come with their own flaws and are each likely to get multiple years at relatively large salaries (guessing 2/$16m for Pena and 3/$33m for Cuddyer); south of that you’re left with unappealing options like Derrek Lee and Lyle Overbay. The internal options haven’t proven they can hit enough to handle an outfield spot, much less the traditionally powerful first base spot.

Of course, Loney hasn’t proven that either, his last two months aside, and that’s why pal Marc Normandin is a bit incredulous about this over at SBN’s Baseball Nation:

Whether Colletti is on target or not with his positive outlook is another matter. We are talking about fewer than 200 plate appearances, after all, and a whole lot can happen in a stretch like that. Plenty of players succeed like mad for short stretches of a month or two, only to never be that productive again. Then again, there are others. Take this .257/.339/.606 September 2009 from a certain Toronto Blue Jay, for one. (Hint: It’s Jose Bautista.) Cases like Bautista, who was a career .386 slugger prior to that month, are a rarity, but with the right changes made to a hitter’s approach, wholesale changes are possible. They are just unlikely, is all.

Loney isn’t about to be confused for Joey Bats anytime soon, but if there is some major change in his swing mechanics that helped him succeed where he previously failed, (and hey, there might be!) then maybe Colletti is on to something. Of course, that “if” is as huge as the difference between Loney and a productive first baseman has been in the past.

I can’t disagree with any of that, and if Loney is as bad as he was to start 2011 – remember, at the time we weren’t looking at him as a guaranteed non-tender as much as we were “is this guy even going to make it through the season?” – or even if he’s generally as mediocre as he’s been over the last three seasons, this is going to be $6m or so that does not help the Dodgers win. But if he’s anything like he was to finish out 2011, then getting production like that on a one-year deal at ~$6m is a steal, a far better value than anything you could pick up on the free agent market.

That “if” is about ten times bigger than Uribe, of course, because I don’t believe that after all this time and all this sustained mediocrity things would have just “clicked”. In Bautista’s case, his success can easily be attributed to a change in his swing mechanics, and while Normandin links to a Chad Moriyama post that says Loney made some changes as well, this is far from the first time we’ve heard that Loney has been tinkering with his swing.

Oh, and ignore Colletti’s comments about “20-25 homers”. They’re completely irrelevant, because of course he’s going to say positive things about the guy he’s about to take a big risk on. If Loney can retain at least some of the progress he showed in August and September of last year and provide a reliable glove at first to track down some of Dee Gordon‘s missles, he might just earn that $6m. If not? Well, other than swapping out Jamey Carroll & friends for the uncertainty of Mark Ellis, we’ve largely seen what this infield can do. Without improvement from Loney, it won’t be pretty.

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