James Loney Makes the Most Sense For the Pirates at First Base

Throughout the off-season, I will be previewing the available free agents at a few positions of need for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The purpose of these articles is to explore the free agent market, and in my case, to dig deeper into the players who are available. I spend so much time focusing on the players in the Pirates system that I don’t get a lot of time to dig deep into the numbers for other players around the league. So my process for these articles is to research every player on the list, trying to find a reason why they would be a good option for the Pirates, or reasons why the Pirates should avoid them.

Keep in mind that I’m not saying that the Pirates have expressed interest in any of these players. I’m also not projecting what I think the Pirates will do. These are just my thoughts on the available free agents. I get asked every year why I don’t also explore potential trade options. Those are harder to predict, since a lot of trade options at this point aren’t actually options. They’re just ideas where people look at a team and assume that a player might be available. If there is a rumor connecting the Pirates to any trade option, then I would explore that option at that time.

As I wrote yesterday, first base is a definite need for the Pirates in 2014. They don’t have any prospects ready to take over. The only possibility is Andrew Lambo, who wouldn’t be bad as a last resort in a platoon with Gaby Sanchez. However, Lambo has spent very little time at first base in his career. He has 41 career games at the position, with 19 coming this year. His bat is definitely intriguing, but I wouldn’t count on him as the main option at first base, especially since there would be no alternatives if he struggles.

Here is the list of potentially available first basemen, via MLBTR. Analysis on the available players is below.

Jose Dariel Abreu (27)
Jeff Baker (33)
Corey Hart (32)
Mike Napoli (32)
Paul Konerko (38)
Casey Kotchman (31)
Adam Lind (30) – $7MM club option with a $2MM buyout
James Loney (30)
Casey McGehee (31)
Kendrys Morales (30)
Justin Morneau (33)
Mike Morse (32)
Lyle Overbay (37)
Carlos Pena (36)
Mark Reynolds (30)
Kevin Youkilis (35)

The biggest name that I’ve been talking about on the site has been Jose Abreu. Yesterday we heard that it could take $70 M to sign Abreu. I’m assuming that would be over six years, putting his price at around $11.5 M per year. That seems steep for someone who has never seen a Major League pitch. I think it’s also important to note that some teams are worried about his defense, and the three teams named as the leaders for his services are American League teams (featuring a DH).

While the price for Abreu seems steep, I don’t think it will be as costly as some of the other top options. Mike Napoli is definitely going to cost more, and would cost a draft pick. I was thinking that Napoli was a no-defense type, but he actually had the best UZR/150 out of all qualified first basemen this year. The thing about UZR is that it’s like batting average. If you hit .300 one year, you’re not a .300 hitter. You’re only a .300 hitter if you do that throughout your career. In Napoli’s case with UZR, he had negative numbers in his previous experiences at the position, although all of them were small sample sizes. So I wouldn’t say that he’s good, but I also wouldn’t say that he’s bad defensively. I don’t think we have enough data to make a conclusion. The biggest concern with Napoli would be that his bat could decline due to his age.

Kendrys Morales looks like one of the most interesting guys on the market. He’s 30 years old, and for the last two seasons he has posted an OPS around .785. He’s a switch hitter, so he could benefit from a move to PNC Park. However, Seattle plans on making him a qualifying offer, which means he will likely be demanding more than Abreu, and will come with the additional cost of a first round pick.

James Loney makes the most sense for the Pirates at first base out of all of the free agent options.

James Loney makes the most sense for the Pirates at first base out of all of the free agent options.

Someone who might be cheaper, and probably won’t come with draft pick compensation is James Loney. The first baseman had a .778 OPS this year for the Rays, which is similar to the results Morales put up. He’s also a left-handed hitter, so he’d fit well in PNC. Loney isn’t much of a power hitter, but he provides defensive value at first (7.2 UZR/150 this year, 11.5 in 2012 and 4.9 in 2011), and he hits for average and gets on base at a good rate.

Some might point to Loney’s 2013 season as a fluke, since he entered the year with a career .758 OPS, and had some poor years in his time with the Dodgers. I think it has to do with him getting out of Dodger Stadium. In his time with the Dodgers, Loney had a .295/.347/.466 line in over 1700 plate appearances on the road. In his career outside of Dodger Stadium he has a .293/.343/.450 line in over 2400 plate appearances. For that reason, I think Loney’s 2013 numbers are sustainable, as long as he doesn’t sign with the Dodgers. And he doesn’t make enough money for the Dodgers to want him.

To be honest, when I started this article I had nothing but a list of free agents, and the feeling that Jose Abreu was the best option. As with all articles, I planned to let this one write itself based on what the research showed. In this case, my research has me favoring James Loney over anyone else. It’s not like I had never researched or been high on Loney. I was high on him after the 2010 season for a lot of the same reasons I listed above. Here’s the kicker with Loney and the 2014 Pirates: In Loney’s career, he has a .793 OPS against right-handers, and a .669 OPS against left-handers. The Pirates have the perfect first baseman to hit left-handers in Gaby Sanchez. They just don’t have an option to hit right-handers, as I detailed yesterday.

Going with another platoon might not sound as appealing as signing a potential home run mashing first baseman like Abreu. However, the Loney/Sanchez platoon would come with strong defense at first base, which isn’t as valuable as strong defense at other positions, but would be a huge upgrade over the reports on Abreu. I also think that while Abreu could have more power than this platoon, the platoon could provide more value in the average and on-base department. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Loney/Sanchez platoon performs the same, or out-performs Jose Abreu. And that’s with me having the opinion that Abreu will be a good hitting first baseman.

There are some other interesting first basemen on the above list. Corey Hart is coming off an injury, and had an .841 OPS in 2012, which was the last year he played. He also had an OPS over .850 in 2010 and 2011. The big question with Hart is whether he is healthy, and whether he can sustain his numbers at the age of 32 and beyond. I’ve never been a big Mike Morse fan, so he wouldn’t be on my list, especially with his numbers declining at his age. I like Mark Reynolds as a platoon option, since he has an .834 OPS against lefties in his career. I like him better as a third base platoon option, although I think the defense would be pretty brutal, and might out-weigh the benefits of hit bat.

Overall, I find myself favoring the idea of going after James Loney. He doesn’t provide a lot of flash like Abreu, or even some name value like Kendrys Morales. But the numbers show that Loney could be very effective in a platoon with Gaby Sanchez. Both have good defensive skills. Both hit for average and get on base, with some power against their respective platoon opponents. And it’s not about money, because I could see Loney/Sanchez costing about the same as Abreu if he’s getting $70 M over six years. The key difference is that there’s less risk involved with this duo, since you have a lot of major league experience to support the idea that they could be a productive combination at first base, rather than just relying on scouting reports and projections with Abreu. Would I still love to see the Pirates get Abreu? Absolutely. But I think James Loney/Gaby Sanchez is an interesting alternative that could provide similar overall value, and more defensive value, which is the biggest strength of the Pirates.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Kevin_Young

    I think Loney will re-sign with the Rays. Also, his home/road OPS split last year was still .663/.889 last year. I don’t like the looks of that so much and really have no faith in Loney repeating that level of production

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Question is, do you think his home numbers would be poor as a lefty playing at PNC Park?

  • leadoff

    I have seen Loney play a few times and agree he would be a good fit, but I don’t see much difference in him than with Morneau.
    The key is to get someone that is not a platoon player, if all you do is look at splits, you might not find any 1st basemen. It is common to have a higher or lower split against left/right handed pitchers. Heck if you went by splits Pedro would be platooned.
    Obviously if someone hits .100 against one side and .350 against the other side you could make a case for the player being a platoon player, but not .20 or .30 points. We sometimes IMO, get into micro analyzing.
    Sanchez would be a better player if he played both ways. As soon as someone gets the “Platoon” label, they don’t get the abs any more against the other side and will not be able to hit the other side simply because they don’t get the reps.
    Save the Sanchez money and spend it on Pedro or Walker extension.
    Spend the Sanchez money on a old vet that can hit to back up Pedro, there is not a 3rd basemen in the entire system if he goes down.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      “Heck if you went by splits Pedro would be platooned.”

      As he should be.

      • leadoff

        OOCH! Tim, patience, Pedro is just learning how to hit. He has cut that swing down a lot.
        If he should be platooned, with who?

        • https://www.facebook.com/mike.rosati.75 Mike Rosati

          If Pedro had shown any improvement at all in the last season then I’d say patience with him, but his BB% decreased, he still struckout in over 30% of his ABs, his OBP decreased. He swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone last season than he did in previous seasons. He made less contact than in previous seasons. I do believe he needs to be platooned with somebody, and I definitely don’t want him locked up long term. It’s one thing if they can buy out a couple of his arbitration years, but I have no desire to see an all power, no OBP, poor defensive player with that type of body build on this team past the age of 30.

          Also, Tim laid out all of the reasons the other day why a Neil Walker contract extension makes no sense. I think the platoon is the way to go at 1B.

          • Y2JGQ2

            Mike- I disagree. Several analysts have discussed how Pedro DID in fact develop better plate coverage and shorten his swing vs. lefty relievers. If you were to look at his numbers vs. lefty relievers in the last two months, you’d see an improvement, especially if you take into account where he actually hit those balls. Driving more to center and the opposite field. If you look at his overall numbers over an entire year, maybe they weren’t better, but we are talking about AB’s vs. lefties, and platoons don’t really work for pedro because the other team will almost always make him bat vs a lefty later in the game. you can’t have him out of the lineup that often.

        • jg941

          Obvious answer would be: a 3B who could hit lefties.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

        Tim…I am with you on Pedro….as noted below by Mike R, Pedro did NOT really improve offensively. He hit more HRs, but….

  • piraddict

    Thanks Tim! But I think the Pirates need to focus on power at 1B. Once Polanco joins the outfield the Pirates will have tremendous speed and defensive prowess there, But they will be light on power by Major League outfield standards, which needs to be compensated for by the corner infield positions. If Abreu is the defensive liability that you suggest then I think the option of Lambo/Sanchez looks better than Loney/Sanchez; and perhaps a rehab project with Corey Hart would provide real value with little risk as the Pirates have the Lambo/Sanchez option in house as a fall back position.

    • Lino Donoso

      I’m OK w/ either Lambo/Sanchez or Loney/Sanchez, as long as there’s no Abreu in our future. At first, didn’t like the cost, now add age and rumored defensive deficiency to the list. Let an AL team have him as an expensive DH.

  • piraddict

    Not to dwell on sour grapes, but a Brandon Moss/Sanchez platoon would have worked last year as well.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      And the Phillies would like to have both Moss AND Grilli back.

      Sourlee yours :)

  • IC Bob

    Thought I read somewhere that Texas was very interested in Loney. If thats the case we would not compete financially with them. Otherwise I like the guy.

    Tim why do you not like Morse. When healthy (That only being a few weeks this year) he mashes the ball. Not sure about his defense but I think he is a buy low candidate with a big upside if his wrist surgery is successful.

    Also why not wait until we find out where Abreu lands and then pick up that teams first basemen ( LoMo from Florida or Moreland from Texas).

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      I read that about Tx/Loney on MLB Rumors.

      Morse might be worth taking a flyer on, but he is definitely not a good 1bman. I saw him everyday for the Nationals….he’s pretty bad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    My choice of 1bmen (in order)

    Lambo (the new GI Jones?)….platoon him with Gaby
    Loney….If you’re not comfy with Lambo, or Lambo is in RF.
    Morales….IF he doesn’t get a QO
    Abreu…IF he comes $10 or cheaper.

    jmo

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      or maybe even Corey Hart

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      I think Morales moves to the top of the list on the off-chance he doesn’t get a qualifying offer.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116366873579930999690 Thom Kay

    For Abreu to be worth 6yr/72m, he’d have to be worth somewhere around 2.2 WAR per season (assumes $/Win goes up slightly over 6 yrs).

    If he’s slow and bad at fielding as reports indicate, then perhaps a good comparison is 2013 Prince Fielder (-5 UZR, -5 BsR, 2.2 fWAR). So if Abreu provides an .820 OPS and never gets hurt, there’s a good chance he’ll be worth the contract, almost exactly. Anything less, and he’s probably a waste.

    I like Loney as a buy low alternative. 3yr/22m.

  • Cecil.

    I’m on board with the Loney idea.

    Sanchez/Lambo gives you too much uncertainty in the biggest part of the platoon. I like Lambo, but if he flops you’re back to hitting Sanchez too much against righties. There’s no fall back position. And lately, Huntington seems to always have a Plan B.

    Give Lambo some at bats in right field, maybe an occasional start at first and let him pinch hit to see what he can do at the major league level. If his ceiling is GIJones that wouldn’t be such a bad thing but we don’t know yet. I don’t think you want that much uncertainty at any position to start the year if you consider yourself a contender.

    Sanchez/Loney gives you two guys with a pretty good track record of getting on base. They may not hit homeruns as much as we’d like, but they both get on base at a good clip, lengthening the batting order and moving Pedro down to the 5 or 6 hole where he seems to be more productive.

    The Bucs have homerun power up and down the lineup. When you’re getting the number of home runs from center field, 2nd base and catcher that the Pirates get, you don’t need the prototypical slugger at first. Especially if the guys you’re going to use add to their value with their defense.

  • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

    As an aside, I’m not so sure that Gaby Sanchez needs to be part of the conversation going forward. If he’s looking for a large raise–and in his case, I think he’s worth no more than $2.5 mil–he’s more expensive than the Bucs can afford for a one-win type of platoon player.

  • piratemike

    Does anybody know the status of Ike Davis?
    If they could bring him in on a minor league contract and see if he can bounce back he would be worth it but if they have to give up prospects and multi millions, no.
    I too would like to see Lambo get a real shot but if they keep him on the 25 he’ll just have to come thru whenever he gets his chances and force the Pirates to make him a regular.

  • CalipariFan506

    I think NH revisits the Trumbo idea

  • rsborelli

    I don’t like Loney as an option. Nor Sanchez as a platoon option. I have a hard time seeing this as the upgrade the Pirates need at first base. I would rather see them take a flyer on guys like Corey Hart or Morse. Or go another direction other than FA market.

  • CalipariFan506

    Corey Hart = Miller Park plus Brewers cheating.

  • swampirate

    Reports are that RedSox and Astros not going to land Abreu… that leaves Chisox. I still think there has to be a smaaaall chance that the Pirates are at least looking. Bell told everyone not to draft him and the pirates did anyways and it worked out… I have no real knowledge just a suspicion that there are more than those 3 teams still kicking the tires here. It is a bit worrisome that his defense has been critiqued like this but perhaps if the interest remains luke warm then the pirates could still sneak in and get a value signing. Still a bunch of risk involved imho.

  • https://profiles.google.com/107471995502632447673 Frank Restly

    Have you looked at minor league options:

    Triple A
    Chris Colabello (Rochester Red Wings – Minnesota Twins) – .352 Ave, 24 HR, 1.066 OPS, 30 years old, Bats Right / Throws Right
    Luis Jimenez (Buffalo – Toronta Blue Jays) – .285 Ave, 18 HR, .845 OPS, 31 Years old, Bats Left / Throws Left
    Brock Peterson (Memphis Red Birds – St. Louis Cardinals) – .295 Ave, 25 HR, .895 OPS, 30 Years old, Bats Right / Throws Right
    Brett Pill (Fresno Grizzlies – San Francisco Giants) – .344 Ave, 18 HR, 1.010 OPS, 29 Years old, Bats Right / Throws Right

    Or how about this guy:

    Japhet Isidro Amador. He plays for the Peoria Javelinas (Houston Astros organization). He had the following line last year:
    .368 Ave, 36 HR, 121 RBI, 38 BB, 59 SO, 1.111 OPS, Bats Right / Throws Right

    Height 6′-4″, Weight 305 Lbs

    Remind you of a bigger version of this guy?

    http://espn.go.com/mlb/player/_/id/5915/prince-fielder

  • smurph

    Pirates should weigh all their options. One thing that has not been considered is releasing Jones, then seeing if he is interested in re-signing for a lower number. He had a bad year, but could still be a short-term fix if nothing else works out. I think you would get more for your money with Jones than if you gave 8-9 million to Morneau.