(w/ LA) .254/.302/.344 359pa 6hr 0.0 fWAR F
2012 in brief: Yet another disappointing season was mercifully cut short in August when he was traded to Boston in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.
2013 status: Free agent, and thank whatever deity you believe in that he’s someone else’s problem now.
You know, prior to the season I joked that photobombing the Eastbound & Down premiere party would be the best thing that James Loney & Javy Guerra would do all year. Seven months later, I’m finding it pretty hard to argue that this didn’t end up being accurate.
You might argue that Loney doesn’t deserve an F, simply because “having a terrible season” isn’t exactly surprising by Loney standards. But he gets one anyway, if only because he teased us with his red-hot finish to 2011 and made us spend all winter wondering once more if he could really be a productive player. He was not. We’re suckers for ever having thought otherwise.
Besides, it’s not like we were hoping for that much, given that using the word “productive” was only in comparison to the underwhelming rest of the NL first base crew, anyway. Once the last-minute attempt to lure Prince Fielder failed, we had to perform some serious mental gymnastics to try to talk ourselves into the idea that Loney might possibly sorta hopefully not be as terrible as we feared:
You see, the National League in 2012 has all of a sudden found itself in a severe drought when it comes to non-Joey Votto options at first base, traditionally one of the most productive offensive players in the lineup if you’re doing it right. (Which means that other than one good year from Nomar Garciaparra in 2006, the Dodgers haven’t been “doing it right” since… what, a few good years from Eric Karros in the 90s? Steve Garvey before that?) Albert Pujols is off from St. Louis to Anaheim, and Prince Fielder joined him in the American League with Detroit. The other notable masher at the position, Ryan Howard, is probably going to miss several months recovering from his Achilles injury – even before that he wasn’t as valuable as most believe anyway – and it’s anyone’s guess as to what his NL East colleagues in Ike Davis and Adam LaRoche can do after missing most of 2011 with serious injuries. A league that once had Pujols, Fielder, Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, and Adam Dunn & Derrek Lee when they were still productive now has only Votto and a whole lot of question marks.
Now, it seems, the bar might not be quite so high to be a decent first baseman in the National League, without even considering that Loney owns one of the better gloves in the circuit. If he repeats his 2011 exactly, his total package could make him average or just-below as far as NL first basemen go. If he’s anything like he was over the last two months of 2011, he’s one of the three best in the league. (And of course, if he’s anything like he was in April and May, he’s on the street by June.)
Is James Loney really any better than he’s been before? Unless you really, really believe in the way he ended 2011, probably not, and believe me, I’m not thrilled about the fact he’s making $6.375m this year. But when you compare him to, well, you’ll see, maybe it’s not so bad. So, to recap… the bad news is, Loney likely isn’t suddenly a top first baseman. The good news is, well, just about no one else has one either.
Loney repaid that hope by hitting just .232/.312/.362 in April and .264/.333/.356 in May. He hit one homer in each month and then none until hitting two in August. While that’s atrocious enough on its own, to have a first baseman hit only four homers in five months, all of them came on the road. That, along with the two he hit with Boston, meant – and I cannot overstate this enough – that it’s now been more than a full calendar year since Loney hit a homer at home, dating back to September 17, 2011, against the Pirates. How is that even possible? It’s not; at least, it shouldn’t be.
By the middle of May, the best we could say about him was merely that “he’s not the biggest problem,” which is basically the definition of “damning with faint praise”; a month later, we were openly looking at potential trade partners to upgrade the position. At that point, though Don Mattingly preferred not to publicly state it, Loney entered into a stone-cold platoon with Juan Rivera. Loney started against C.J. Wilson and the Angels on June 13th… and then never again started against a lefty in the more than two months he remained on the team before being traded. Never. Once.
Even though Rivera was just as terrible, keeping Loney away from lefties made sense from Mattingly’s perspective. But it didn’t help, not really, since Loney still hit just .289/.299/.386 over July & August even with the boost of facing nearly exclusively righty pitching. As you can imagine, with the team hanging around the playoff hunt, we were not nearly satisfied with this. Yet with no move at the trade deadline for a Justin Morneau or someone like him, the alternative seemed obvious: Jerry Sands, who had turned around his terrible start to begin destroying the PCL again.
Sands was recalled on August 6 when Tony Gwynn was DFA’d, and we were all hopeful that he was coming to get a chance to take over first base from the disappointing duo. He didn’t, getting just one start before being sent back, and by August 17, with Loney struggling to keep his OBP above .300, I was writing at FanGraphs about how badly things had gone:
It’s really, really difficult to overstate just how bad the first base situation is in Los Angeles right now. Of the possibly dozens of different ways to describe how awful James Loney & Juan Rivera are, my favorite might be “Juan Uribe still exists, and even despite that third base isn’t the biggest problem on this club.” Loney (.252/.300/.328 & .265 wOBA entering Thursday) and Rivera (.243/.280/.355 & .271 wOBA) have combined to start 112 of the first 118 games at first base this year, and all the Dodgers have received for that time investment is a combined .268 wOBA, just a tick above Seattle for the worst in baseball. (If we go by WAR, which factors in Rivera’s below-average defense, they are dead last.) I’m not sure what’s more surprising – that Loney has just three homers this year, or that he hasn’t had an unintentional walk since June 23.
Yet with the Dodgers unwilling to give Sands a fair chance, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, it seemed we’d be stuck with this mess for the rest of the year and then spend half the offseason praying that Colletti would finally move in a different direction. Of course, a week later, the shocking Boston trade dropped… and just like that, he was gone. (And don’t think I let that tiny fact pass in my initial, overwhelmingly shocked, look at the trade, saying “The end of James Loney! I don’t want that to get lost here. He’s gone!” and that “obviously losing Loney is addition by subtraction”.
So what’s Loney’s legacy in Los Angeles? One of disappointment, obviously, because the talent he flashed in 2006 & 2007 and then again at the end of 2011 was never something he could keep up. One of controversy, I suppose, since we seemingly never heard the end of “but he’s a run producer” arguments from those who were enamored by his back-to-back 90 RBI seasons.
For me, I’m not sure there’s any more fitting legacy that when Loney finally left Los Angeles, he went to Boston and was immediately worse, hitting .230/.264/.310 in 30 games there. I know, I know; 106 plate appearances isn’t much of a sample size. It doesn’t matter. It’s an appropriate end to yet another disappointing season of a disappointing career. So long, James. Don’t come back.
Next up! I still can’t quit believe this team ended up with Adrian Gonzalez!