James Loney: An Overlooked Hitter


Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney has been off to the best start of his career, batting .320 after the season’s first three-months-plus. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Red Sox made their blockbuster, clean-house, multi-player trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers during their disastrous 2012 season most of the attention was on who Boston was ditching, not who Boston was receiving.

The big to-do was all about the Red Sox exiling Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and dumping salary. One of the players Boston collected in the trade was James Loney, who was installed at first base for the rest of the season and then himself tossed away when the Sox revamped the roster in the off-season. He was a free agent and Boston did not try to convince him to stick around.

At the time Loney had to be thinking: Why me? What did I ever do? Although the Red Sox are doing just fine and picked up an entire new set of scrappy players who can hit, at first it did seem as if they were overzealous in getting rid of Loney. He seemed like the kind of guy who could help them, not hurt them and was worth hanging on to.

Now that the months have passed you won’t catch the Red Sox saying they regret not keeping Loney because things have been working out so well for the team. But the fact is Loney would have been right at home with the rebuilt and rejuvenated Red Sox and he is proving it with a stellar season.

Loney, who is still only 29, is having the best season of his career, playing first base for the Tampa Bay Rays, one of Boston’s American League East Division rivals, and a team that could yet haunt the Red Sox before the end of this season. After completion of 87 games (every one of which he appeared in) Loney was batting .320 with nine home runs and 43 runs batted in and his on-base percentage was .373.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound left-handed swinger is in his eighth big-league season. Although his lifetime average is .280, the only other time that Loney hit .300 was in 2007. That year, appearing in 96 games, he batted .331.

Loney played in just 30 games for the Red Sox after the trade and batted just. 230 in that limited action during the tumultuous last-place season for Boston. Given how desperately Boston management wanted to fix a poisoned clubhouse and start fresh with a new manager, Loney was viewed as expendable. Yet he seems to be the kind of player Boston is thriving with right now, fitted into the lineup around holdovers and stars like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Once ignored by Boston Loney signed a one-year, $2 million contract with Tampa Bay. On a team light on hitting, strong on pitching, and with designs on capturing the division crown, Loney has been a very valuable resource.

There is plenty of baseball to be played in 2013, but by the time the season ends Loney may be looked at as the best bargain free-agent acquisition in the league.