From the moment the Los Angeles Dodgers plucked James Loney out of prep powerhouse Elkins High (Texas) back in 2002, scouts lauded his silky-smooth left-handed swing. A two-way phenom who could dial it up into the low-90’s on the mound, Loney was nonetheless preferred by the Dodgers for his feats in the batter’s box. While few doubted that Loney would spray line drives all over the field, his power ceiling was subject to considerably more debate.
It’s been seven years since Los Angeles made Loney the 19th overall pick, and guess what? We still don’t know how much thump the 25 year-old will show in the long term. His minor league career was often schizophrenic, as he posted a combined .296/.362/.430 line. That’s garden-variety production from a fellow playing the pre-eminent power position on the diamond, but Loney continued to rank prominently on most prospect lists on the faith that his doubles power would eventually lead to more frequent round-trippers…
2003, High-A Vero Beach (Age 19)
.276/.337/.400, .124 ISO, 9.2 BB%, 17 K%
Baseball America Prospect Ranking: #42 overall (4th in LA system)
Prospect Handbook comment: “A disciplined hitter with good pitch recognition and a classic lefthanded stroke that recalls Mark Grace, Loney sprays line drives to all fields and has power to the alleys. He’s still growing and projects to hit 30 homers annually.”
(note: Loney did break his wrist late in 2002; wrist injuries tend to sap a player’s bat control and power)
2004, AA Jacksonville (Age 20)
.238/.311/.327, .099 ISO, 10.6 BB%, 19 K%
BA Prospect Ranking: #62 overall (4th in LA system)
Prospect Handbook comment: “Loney did bat .314 in the Arizona Fall League and remains one of the game’s most promising first-base prospects…scouts have wondered when Loney’s power is going to come.”
(note: Loney fractured the tip of his middle finger during the season and later developed an infection)
2005, AA Jacksonville (Age 21)
.284/.357/.419, .135 ISO, 11.7 BB%, 17.3 K%
BA Prospect ranking: 11th in LA system
Prospect Handbook comment: “Following three seasons marred by wrist and finger injuries, Loney finally stayed healthy in 2005…but he hit just 11 homers, and scouts continue to wonder if he’ll have enough power to be a regular first baseman in the big leagues.”
You get the picture. Most everyone loved the swing and kept the faith that Loney would eventually hit the ball with force. But, as the prospect rankings slipped and the slugging exploits remained mild, some were beginning to fall off the band wagon.
Just when it looked like Loney’s prospect status might be headed down the drain, the lefty hit the jackpot with AAA Las Vegas in 2006. The Pacific Coast League (and Vegas in particular) is a great place to hit, and Loney’s line was fueled by a lofty batting average, but he turned in a .380/.426/.546 showing that evidently re-started the love affair with scouts. Loney also helped himself with a searing cup of coffee with the Dodgers, batting .284/.342/.559 in 111 PA. He jumped back up the charts, ranking as BA’s 44th best prospect. By this point, Loney was yet again compared to Mark Grace, another southpaw-swinging first-baseman with modest pop but good strike-zone control and contact ability.
Loney regressed back at Sin City in 2007, however, posting a very mild .279/.345/.382 line at Vegas. The youngster still received another opportunity to break into the big league lineup in June, as Nomar Garciaparra’s bat was no-mas (.307 wOBA in ’07). Loney seemingly made good on those power prognostications, posting a tantalizing .389 wOBA (.331/.381/.538), a .200-plus ISO (.206) and 15 bombs in 375 PA.
So that’s it, right? Loney was the greatest thing since Vin Scully and bopped happily ever after?
Not quite. Rather than maintaining that boost in the extra-base hit department, Loney turned in a rather Graceian .289/.338/.434 line in 2008, with 13 taters in 651 PA. His ISO (.145) was the fourth-lowest among first baseman qualifying for the batting title, ranking ahead of only underpowered peers such as Casey Kotchman, Ryan Garko and Daric Barton. While it’s probably best not to get worked up over a one-year platoon split, southpaws did silence Loney to the tune of .249/.303/.361.
Loney is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a Dodger Dog. Any time one feels confident in mapping out his future, he unexpectedly takes a 180 degree turn. There’s a fine line between asset and liability at a spot like first base. With the positional standard being so high (the average MLB first baseman hit .271/.352/.463 in 2008), singles-and-doubles-hitting batsmen aren’t all that valuable; they’re just sort of there.
Loney is still just going to be 25 this year and holds a career .303/.353/.480 line in the majors, so he’s certainly not without talent. But it seems most will end up disappointed if he turns out to be the next Sean Casey. Holding the title of “Mayor” could be sort of a letdown if you were expected to become president of a young and immensely talented ballclub.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at email@example.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.