Los Angeles Dodgers
Position: 1B Height: 6-3 Weight: 200 Born: 5/7/84 Bats: Left Throws: Left
The Dodgers drafted James Loney in the first round in 2002, out of high school in Missouri City, Texas (a suburb of Houston). He was primarily a pitcher in high school, and many teams rated him a first- or second-round talent based on the strength of his arm. But the Dodgers saw him as a hitter, bucking the consensus, and stuck him at first base. His initial pro debut was tremendously successful, as he held his own in the difficult Florida State League within weeks of signing. His '03 campaign was less impressive on the surface, but injuries had much to do with that. Loney has thrived in spring training, and is poised for a huge breakout in '04.
The first thing you notice about Loney if you watch him play is his swing. It is a thing of beauty, the Brooke Burke of baseball swings. He sprays liners to all fields, but can also pull the ball for power, into the gaps or over the fence. Loney's plate discipline is solid; although he's not a walk machine, his strikeout rate is fairly low for a young power hitter, and he generally works the count well. He will hit for average and power at higher levels. Loney is a fine athlete, with good range for a first baseman. His speed is average to below-average, but he is alert on the bases and not a baseclogger. His arm is strong for a first baseman (as befits a former pitcher), and overall he is a positive asset with the glove. Scouts praise his work ethic, and he is emotionally mature for his age.
Loney played good competition in high school, and has been one of the youngest players at his levels so far in pro ball. His '02 pro debut was stunningly successful. In '03, his numbers tailed off, but he maintained decent plate discipline. The Florida State League is notoriously bad for hitters, and despite disappointing numbers on the surface, his OPS still came out nine percent better than league average. He is on fire this spring, and will begin the year in Double-A.
Loney has had two significant health concerns, a knee injury in high school that required surgery, and a broken wrist suffered late in 2002. The knee seems fine now, and shouldn't be a long-term concern. The wrist injury sapped his power in '03, preventing him from turning on pitches with authority. It is fully healed now, and his bat speed and power are back to pre-injury standards.
What to expect
The Dodgers have to be pleased with Loney's spring performance (.444 with .741 SLG through 15 games). Sure, it's just spring training, but it's damn impressive for a guy out of A-ball, coming off a wrist injury, and still 19 years old. Loney's spring tear erases any doubts about the health of his wrist, and puts him back on the prospect fast track. Given his combination of youth, performance, skills, and tools, Loney could very well be the best first base prospect in baseball. If he rips Double-A the way he's ripped the Grapefruit League, he could see Dodger Stadium late this year.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through on-line book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas, and feline friends Toonces and Spot.