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MLB Free Agents: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of James Loney

Felipe Melecio focuses on James Loney’s free agent opportunities this offseason and looks back at Loney’s accomplishments as an MLB prospect.

Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney

Another reason for his struggles that season is the fact that he also posted the highest Ground Ball Rate since his MLB debut in 2006. We saw what random outcomes on batted balls can do for a hitter with poor plate discipline in Corey Hart. Loney, despite the better discipline, might have benefitted from more variety on his batted balls. Baseball can be a very cruel sport, even for hitters who have a good approach at the plate and can hit for plenty of line-drives. Sometimes bad luck can follow a player around like a rain cloud that’s constantly blocking the sun. When it rains, it pours.

Conversely, Loney’s 2013 season can almost be best described as “fluky.” His BABIP that year was the highest of his career as a full-time starter. His Line Drive Rate was almost comical, nearing 30 percent. Loney finished number one in that category among all qualified batters. Also, his Home Runs Per Fly Ball Percentage was the highest it has been since his promising first two years in the big leagues.

Something definitely clicked in 2013 for Loney. But to his credit, his approach has continued to stay the same through thick and thin:

James Loney: Plate Discipline

Year

Age

Swing%

Contact%

SwStr%

2011

27

46.6%

88.4%

5.3%

2012

28

48.3%

88.1%

5.7%

2013

29

46.5%

89.2%

5.1%

To put Loney’s three-year average Swing Percentage of 47.1 percent into perspective, Loney virtually finished behind guys like Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Beltran, and Andre Ethier. Not a bad trio to be categorized with in terms of plate approach. Also, Loney finished far ahead among first basemen in Contact and Swinging Strike Percentage in 2013. Matter of fact, his 2012 figure of 88.1 would have still beaten out Edwin Encarnacion by almost four points.

And it almost goes without saying, but we’re talking about one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball. His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR is basically an advanced defensive metric) in 2013 ranked fourth at his position.

Yahoo’s Jeff Passan tweeted that Loney was looking for a three or four year deal worth anywhere between $27 and $40 million. Loney is a solid player, but other than posting a great On-Base Percentage in 2013, Loney did nothing to warrant a multi-year deal of this magnitude. At its minimum, the new deal would put Loney ahead of Encarnacion in terms of highest salary at first base. Loney’s lucky 2013 continues on, even in the offseason.

By posting better numbers than he did in 2012, the illusion has been created that Loney is a prime candidate to man the position for a team for many years to come. But helping Loney’s cause is his age (he will be 30 next season) and the number of potential teams that might be looking to upgrade their first base and designated hitter slots in their hitting lineup. It already appears as if the Pittsburgh Pirates will be aggressively pursuing him. However, one look at all MLB rosters and there appears to be at least eight teams that might be looking at Loney to upgrade their first base situation, including the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles, and even the New York Yankees because they’re the Yankees.

So what can we expect from Loney for 2014? As long as Loney continues to hit for a solid Line Drive and Contact Percentage and continues to display a good approach at the plate, he will continue to have some value despite the lack of power at first base. Also helping Loney is that he does come with some pedigree as he was once considered a highly-touted prospect. Teams like giving former top prospects every chance to succeed. Even those prospects with beautiful swings, but cannot generate much power at the big league level.

Will he be worth the money that he is looking for? Absolutely not. Regardless of the expensive price tag, a repeat performance of 2011 would not be surprising; solid, but unspectacular.

Stats courtesy of fangraphs.com.

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