Back when James Loney was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 19th pick in the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft, it was thought that he may one day compete for a batting title. He was compared to such hitters as John Olerud, Mark Grace and Wally Joyner, not only for his expected ability to hit, but for his ability to field as well. Loney was consistently ranked amongst the top 100 prospects by Baseball America while in the minors, topping out as the 34th best prospect prior to 2003.
However, Loney never was able to reach the level expected of him. He flashed a bit of power periodically, hitting three home runs in the final week of 2006 during his brief callup, and hitting 15 homers in 96 games in 2007. However, that mark of 15 home runs still stands as his career high. After that point, he became a slightly above average hitter, hitting around .280 with just over 30 doubles a year from 2008 through 2011, but he really never proved capable of being more than a mediocre player.
The bottom completely fell out for Loney in 2012 as he struggled through his worst season in the majors. Traded from the disappointing Dodgers to the thoroughly dysfunctional Boston Red Sox, he combined to hit .249/.293/.336 with six home runs and 20 doubles. His OPS+ was a miserable 73. A free agent after the season, he appeared very close to being relegated to a backup role, if he could even get a major league offer.
Then along came the Rays, signing Loney to a one year deal for $2Million. At the time, very lilttle was thought of the move, aside from it being a typical Tampa Bay Rays signing – low cost and very low risk. And then, naturally, the Tampa Bay Rays magic came through, as Loney, for at least the first month and a half of the season, has started to look like the player he was expected to be.Presently, Loney is second in the American League in batting average (.376) and third in on base percentage (.432). He ranks seventh in doubles and OPS. While he only has one home run, he has been hitting the ball with authority and looking more like the player he was expected to be. What caused this transformation?
According to Loney, it may have just been a change of scenery. Speaking with Bill Chastain, he talked about finding his comfort zone with the Rays, and watching video of his swing. Perhaps he just needed to get out of the major markets, like Los Angeles and Boston, to finally reach his potential.
“I think that it’s happened for a reason, you know,” Loney said. “I think it’s great for me to be in this situation. This team. This organization. I feel like the change was good for me. I definitely feel blessed to be in this situation.”
Regardless of the reason, James Loney has become another in the growing list of Rays reclamation projects that have panned out beyond expectations. Like Jeff Keppinger and Fernando Rodney last year, the Rays appear to have worked their magic once again with a player that very few held in any regard. Will his resurgence continue throughout the season, or is he in the midst of a very hot month with the bat? Given the Rays track record, it may well be the former.