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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