24 January 2011

2011 Preview - First Base


Read my catching preview here.

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I should take the time early on to mention that I'm sure James Loney is probably a wonderfully decent human being who works very hard to be the best ballplayer he can be.

The problem is, quite simply, that the best ballplayer he can be isn't much use to a ballclub gunning for the World Series and lacking in the fundamental necessity for any serviceable first-baseman: a live bat.

Throughout his career Loney has often been compared to Mark Grace, the big Cubs/D'Backs first-baseman who finished his career with an impressive slash line of .303/.383/.442 (that's an OPS of .815, boys and girls). Grace, who played from 1988 to 2003, enjoyed his best season during a 1995 campaign that saw him go .326/.395/.516 - .911, to go along with his third of four Gold Gloves and a league-leading 51 doubles. The following year saw Grace hit .331. His season OPS wouldn't drop below .800 until 2oo2, when he was 38 years old and coming off a solid 2001 where he helped the D'Backs win the World Series. To cap all that, Grace hit .329 in 82 career postseason at-bats with two home runs.

But it was those home runs that kept Grace from being considered a truly elite player, for although he was without-a-doubt an excellent first-baseman, it's hard to stick him in a room with Bagwell, Thome, Thomas, McGwire, Palmeiro, McGriff, Delgado, Mattingly, Martinez, Helton, and Giambi, and then make an argument that you'd include Mark Grace in your top 5. While most of the other guys were hitting 30, 40, or 50 (or 70) bombs a season, steroids or not, Grace never hit more than 17 in a season. And, as the professor-emeritus of baseball so perfectly once put it - "chicks dig the long ball."

So, what we can conclude from all this is that, although he wasn't the best first-baseman of his era, Mark Grace was underrated and the Cubs/D'Backs certainly did not suffer by employing him rather than one of the other guys.

That brings us to the Dodgers' current situation with James Loney, Grace's supposed "heir-apparent." The power numbers are similar - Loney's season high in homers is the 15 he smacked in 2007. Loney has also developed an ability to reach the gaps. His 41 doubles were good for fifth in the National League in 2010. Loney has even been a stud in the postseason (.349/.414/.540 - .954) with three home runs (including one huge grand slam) in 70 plate appearances.

Unfortunately, that's where the Mark Grace comparisons end and the 00's-era J.T. Snow ones begin.

Loney finished 2010 with a dreadful .267/.329/.395 - .723 line. That is just plain awful. There's no way you can spice that up. It's just bad, bad, bad.

Like the rest of the Dodgers offense, Loney couldn't wait for the second half to end, hitting a Juan Castro-esque .211 after the All-Star Break (the Dodgers' reaction? Promote the hitting coach!). Loney barely managed 10 home runs for the season and saw his defense, his supposed best asset, hiccup into mediocrity. It's arguable he was one of the ten best defensive first-basemen in the majors, at best.

Wins above Replacement (WAR) is a statistic used to quantify overall value. I could give you a list of first-basemen who were more valuable than Loney last season, but unfortunately it's much easier to present the small list of regular first-basemen who were worse than Big James (1.1):

Carlos Peña (1.0)
Michael Cuddyer (0.4)
Ty Wigginton (0.3)
Garrett Jones (0.1)
Jorge Cantu (0.0)

That's it.

The top 5 are Joey Votto (7.4), Albert Pujols (7.3), Miguel Cabrera (6.2), Aubrey Huff (5.7), and Adrian Gonzalez (5.3). Right in the middle of the pack are guys like Teixeira (10th at 3.5), Gaby Sanchez (14th at 2.4), and Ryan Howard (17th at 2.0). That means that Ryan Howard is, according to these stats, a mediocre first-baseman when compared to his peers). If Ryan Howard is a mediocre first-baseman, what does that make James Loney?

And therein we reach our problem. If Loney were a right-fielder or a third-baseman or a shortstop, he might be seen as just decent enough to warrant a spot in the starting 9. But instead, Loney is competing against a class of truly exceptional ballplayers, many of whom provide their team with a power bat and potential game-changing skills. Loney simply doesn't do that. The fact that power hitting first-basemen come a dime-a-dozen and the Dodgers instead keep Loney around means that they are forced to fish around for that necessary piece in other places where talent is thinner and the price skyrockets for anyone among the elite.

Just look at the Texas Rangers and Adrian Beltre. Beltre doesn't offer anything with the bat that a decent first-baseman can't give you, but because Beltre plays third-base (and a nifty third-base at that), the Rangers basically bid against themselves and handed our old buddy Adrian $96 million over six years. Right now we're paying Casey Blake $7 million to provide what we felt would be decent power numbers for a third baseman. If Blake were a first-baseman he'd be Loney-esque compared to the rest. But because he provides veteran stability at the hot corner, he got 3 years and $21 million two offseasons ago.

A big reason the Dodgers overpaid (heinously) and gave Juan Uribe a similar contract this offseason was because Colletti felt he could provide some power from the second-base position. If the Dodgers had a guy like Adam Dunn (whose 4yr/56mil contract with the White Sox was a huge bargain) at first-base, they wouldn't have to overpay for minimal power upgrades at other positions. Simply put, James Loney handicaps this team.

I know this is supposed to be a season preview and not a tarring-and-feathering, but it's important to fully flesh out all the details of the Dodgers' depressing dependence on such an albatross. Loney will make around $5 million in 2011 after arbitration - about the same that Mark Grace made during his richest year. As he still has more arbitration ahead of him, Loney will only get more expensive in the future. It's hard to argue that the Dodgers can afford to give their first-baseman Mark Grace money (let alone real first-base money) if he can't even put up Mark Grace (or real first-base numbers).

It appears the Dodgers are stuck with Loney for the time being. Although he's gotten worse each year for the past several (.919 OPS in '07, .772 in '08, .756 in '09, .722 in '10), the Dodgers have continued to stand by him. Many of his past coaches have made it clear they believe his power swing will come around any day now. If any day now doesn't come in 2011 though, it's hard to believe the team will bother to re-up him for 2012.

Loney will most certainly begin 2011 as the Dodgers' first-baseman, as the team really has no other option (sorry, John Lindsey). The 40 man roster does include Russ Mitchell, who will be fighting for a spot off the bench. If he makes the team out of Spring Training (I don't see it happening), Mitchell would likely be one of the primary backups. Dodger coaches have taken a liking to Mitchell because of his versatility and ability to play most positions on the field. His debutant ball in September last year could have gone much better though, as he couldn't buy a hit for most of the month. In the past we have also seen Casey Blake serve time as the backup at first-base, as well as Jay Gibbons and Andre Ethier (albeit, for only an inning).

On the farm, the Dodgers have the amazing Jerry Sands continuing his meteoric rise from obscure 25th-round pick to the star of the system and making many believe he (along with OF Trayvon Robinson) will be the first Dodger farmhand to eventually secure a starting job since Kemp and Loney in '07. While Sands has seen a lot of time in the outfield, with some additional innings trying to adapt to third base, his final resting spot may be at first-base if his bat gets to the point where it simply cannot be left out of the lineup. He'll be the most important prospect to watch in Spring Training this season, as he and Robinson are likely to don their first Dodgers game jerseys sometime during 2011.

Perhaps the best option for the Dodgers - dealing James Loney while he has value - has come and gone. There are rumors that the Nationals lobbied hard to take Loney off Ned's hands before they finally settled on Adam La Roche (statistically better). What Loney might really need is a change of scenery. His career stats are much, much, much better away from Dodger Stadium - a fact that has always been an issue with Loney. It would have certainly been interesting if Colletti had managed to swap Loney for Mike Morse (would make me feel better about our LF situation) and either a prospect or cash, and then went after one of the big-name first-basemen on the market such as Dunn or old friend Paul Konerko (naturally Ned didn't take advantage of our protected first-round pick).

With all things considered though, Loney remains the Dodgers' best option at first-base. Although it feels like we've been dealing with his growing pains forever now, Loney is still only 26 and won't be 27 until a month into the season. The player who best compares to Big James at age 26 on Baseball-Reference, interestingly enough, is another large first-baseman, the sleeveless Cincinatti Reds great Ted Kluszewski. Big Klu's batting average jumped from .259 to .320 when he jumped from 26 to 27. Then, his 27 year-old season home run mark of 16 shot up to 40 in his 28th.

That may be the only silver lining in this entire Loney situation. While Dodgers fans are one-by-one losing their faith in Big James, there's always the hope that Torre and Mattingly are right and Loney will go bonkers in 2011. He did, you'll remember, smack 15 home runs in only 375 at-bats during that 2007 season that saw him sitting behind Nomar Garciaparra in the depth chart. The best-case scenario for Dodger fans (and Loney, really) is that he'll rediscover that power swing and put at least 20 over the wall in 2011. Most 2011 projections don't see that happening, but stranger things have happened out of the blue.

Spring Training Predictions (the Dodgers have no 1b non-roster invitees):

Loney - starter at 1b
Gibbons - starter in LF, backup at 1b
Blake - starter at 3b, backup at 1b
Mitchell - Albuquerque
Lindsey - Designated for Assignment to make room on 40-man
Sands - Albuquerque

Predicted 25-Man so far:

Lineup
C - Rod Barajas
1b - James Loney
2b -
3b - Casey Blake
SS -
LF - Jay Gibbons
CF -
RF -

Bench
C - Dioner Navarro
OF -
OF -
IF -
UT -

SP -
SP -
SP -
SP -
SP -

RP -
RP -
RP -
RP -
RP -
RP -
RP -

CURRENTLY (re)READING - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

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