Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Free James Loney...

... Of Playing Time? According to ESPN's Matt Meyers, that might not be such a bad idea. He's pegged James Loney, along with Kevin Kouzmanoff and Jonny Gomes, as the players with the least-deserved job security.

When the Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League West in 2008 and 2009, much of the credit was given to their young homegrown core of outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, catcher Russell Martin and first baseman James Loney. In reality, it was a bit misleading to group them all together since their individual values are wildly different -- and this is becoming even more obvious as time goes by. Thus far this year, Kemp and Martin (who is now with the New York Yankees) are in top form, and Ethier continues to crush baseballs all over Chavez Ravine. All three are showing why the Dodgers had so much success when they were clicking on all cylinders together.

And then there's Loney. (Hey, it can't all be good news, right?)

The first baseman has picked up right where he left off last year ... and that's not a good thing. Loney posted a .616 OPS after the All-Star break in 2010 and is sporting a .470 mark 25 games into the 2011 season. The common refrain of the optimistic is "give him time, he'll come around." But the truth is that Loney was never that good in the first place, and he's one of a number of players who is the beneficiary of job security he never really deserved.

Back in 2007, Loney looked like a future star. The then 23-year-old hit .331/.381/.538 in 375 plate appearances, and the Dodgers probably figured they were set at first base for the foreseeable future. And if you only paid attention to his fantasy stats, he seemed like he was keeping up his end up the bargain, hitting .285 over the next two years while averaging 90 RBIs per season.

While his average dipped a bit in 2010, he again knocked in 88 runs despite slugging just .395. This, however, is just another example of why RBIs are a relatively meaningless stat. From 2008 through 2010, Loney had the third-most plate appearances in baseball with runners in scoring position, which goes to show that he was actually extremely inefficient when it comes to driving in runs. However, from a cosmetic standpoint, he looked decent, which allowed him to keep his job. There is nowhere for him to hide anymore. The standard for offense at first base is extremely high and his .394 slugging percentage since the start of the 2009 season is stifling the Dodgers' offense. The Dodgers called up prospect Jerry Sands last week and suggested he would see some time at first base, but Sands has played only the outfield thus far.

The question is, why have the Dodgers given Loney so much leeway? According to FanGraphs, he has been worth a total 2.3 Wins Above Replacement since 2008, which is the worst among qualified first basemen during that time.

It's understandable that the Dodgers would have an affinity for a player they drafted and developed, but Loney's malaise is now in its fourth season -- and it's not like he's cheap, either. The 26-year-old is making $4.875 million after earning $3.1 million last year. Russell Branyan, who posted a WAR of 6.1 from 2008 through 2010, signed a minor league deal this offseason. This isn't to say that Branyan is the answer, it's to show that first basemen who can hit are not that hard to find, and the Dodgers are choosing to handicap themselves by starting one who can't.

Does this mean my Free James Loney shirt is now ironic and cruel? (And for what it's worth, I dropped Loney and his over-inflated salary from my keeper fantasy league. I have since gone from dead last to near dead last)