The Great Loney Debate

From the time he was a rather surprising first round draft choice in 2002, James Loney has engendered controversy as few players in the Dodger system have. Opinions on his abilities range from "outstanding" to "overrated" with several stops in between. And what he has done in 2005 isn't likely to end the debate. Oh, maybe, in one area but that's about it.

No one doubted that he was the top performer on the nation's number one rated high school Elkins of Houston his senior year. It's just that almost every scout who had seen him play and, of course, a player on a team like that gets seen a lot, thought he'd make a good selection as a lefthanded pitcher, probably in the second round.

However, the Dodger officials who were looking at him -- and there was a large contingent of them, too- thought the way he swung a bat while playing first base was exactly what they had in mind. And so, when their turn came they made him the 19th pick in that nation, cautioning all to note, "Make sure you say we're selecting him as a first baseman"

If the others doubted the wisdom of that move- and many, maybe most, did -- L.A. had plenty of chance to say, "I told you so" when Loney proceeded to hit .371 for Great Falls. So good did he look that they propelled him upward to Vero Beach. There, this 18-year-old was hitting .299 in high A when an errant pitch whacked him on his wrist, ending his season prematurely.

By then a lot of people were asking, "How quickly can he get up to the top?" But subsequent seasons haven't promptly that query nearly so often as he hit .276 for Vero in 2003 followed by a lowly .238 for Jacksonville in 2004.

That's when those "overrated" comments began to rumble.

It wasn't only that the average suffered. Prime first basemen are supposed to hit the long ball as everyone knows and Loney's home run totals were five, seven and four in his first three seasons. Hardly the stuff a future Steve Garvey was made of, they declared.

Wait a minute, was the answer from those who defended him. A lot of big league bombers didn't do all that much in the home run department when they were down there. Why, Shawn Green hit only one in 114 games when he was in the Florida State League. And he holds the Dodger record for balls jacked out of the yard. Power is the last thing that arrives on a hitter's resume.

Besides, they point out, look at Loney's doubles totals -- 28-31 and 19. You can dismiss 2004, they say for he was hurt early (by another stray pitch, one that broke a finger that became infected). He never did play healthy after that, they assert.

So the critics leapt in with another argument -- he's injury-prone. He was hurt in two of the three years he's been a pro and didn't play healthy much of the time he was on the field. What do we have here, any way? Another J.D. Drew ?

Loney has defended himself in this area by pointing out that, "Those were accidents. It's not like I was out of shape, pulling muscles." That aspect of his game he defended in the best manner possible in 2005 for he played in 138 games, most of anybody in the system.

His numbers this year were .284-11-65 and those aren't likely to still his critics. They'll note that those figures aren't that thrilling. Defenders will point out that they're indications that he's maturing nicely and the best is yet to come.

Besides he drove 31 two-base knocks once again and doubles often turn into dingers when a player gets older, smarter and stronger.

That's another factor in Loney's defense. As one scout put it, "He's just 21, for crying out loud. That's the age kids are getting drafted out of college and if some kid came out and hit those numbers in AA, they'd be saying he's had a great year and can't miss. With James, they say it's not enough."

Maybe that's the real knock on Loney. His break-in was so exceptional that anything short of that is a disappointment to some.

There's one area where no one rips -- his fielding for he 's extremely adept with the glove. Yet, there are those who'll claim that it's only at first base, a position any clod ought to be able to play.

"You hear that," a former big leaguer who now announces for a living, was saying, "but I don't buy it. I've seen a lot of guys move to first and try it and they can't hack it. A good first baseman saves a lot of errors for other fielders by scooping their bad throws. He gets into the right spot to make the right play. No, it's not something anybody can do. It takes a lot more than that"

Part of the problem for those impatient to see huge numbers from Loney is that first is hardly a secure spot in the Dodger lineup. It seems everybody this side of Milton Bradley has been tried there and maybe he would have to if he had not gotten himself hurt.

So it that every Dodger fan wants a saviour to arrive at that position. So, the debate whether James is the one who can take them out of misery to the promised land will rage on. Meanwhile he gets closer to answering the questions.