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Loney's Improvement a Key for 2010

If this offseason has taught us anything so far, it's that the Dodger roster as it stands now, four days before Christmas, won't be much different than the one that opens the regular season on April 5 in Pittsburgh.  The core of the team will carry this team as far as it's going to go.  Most of that nucleus is young and on the upswing, which is good for a team that needs their improvement to fuel another postseason run.

These young players also fit a key requirement to be a Dodger these days, in that they are cheap, at least relatively so. Using Wins Above Replacement (on Fangraphs), the Dodgers' two best players last season were Matt Kemp (5.0 WAR) and Clayton Kershaw (4.2 WAR, tied with Casey Blake).  Those two made a combined $871,000 in 2009, meaning they were two of the most valuable players in baseball.  Many of these young players are due for raises in 2010, as the Dodgers lead baseball with nine arbitration-eligible players.

One of the most intriguing stories of 2010 will be the performance of first baseman James Loney.  He is eligible for arbitration for the first time, and he will probably make somewhere between $3 million to $3.5 million next season.  Loney has just over three years of service time, and here are some comparable first basemen heading into their fourth year in recent seasons:

Stats Through 3rd Year
First Baseman Year Service Time OPS+ Runs RBI 4th Year Salary
Adam LaRoche    
2007 3 years 114 187 213 $3.2 million
Kevin Youkilis 2008 3 yrs, 93 days 109 234 199 $3 million
Mike Jacobs 2009 3 yrs, 47 days 110 197 247 $3.25 million
James Loney 2010  
3 yrs, 12 days 112 200 265 ???
Service time courtesy of the great Cot's Baseball Contracts

Loney is not quite at the crossroads of his Dodger career, but he is getting closer.  He plays first base, the most offensive-minded position in baseball, while last season Loney had a slugging percentage of .399.  It's one thing to accept relatively low production from your first baseman when he is making $465,000, as Loney did in 2009, because the team can theoretically use the savings to spend money on other positions.  Now that Loney will likely make $3 million or more, it's time to look at first base with a more critical eye.  

I'm not saying it's time to cut bait on Loney.  He will turn 26 in April, about to enter a time which is often considered the prime of a player's career.  He also has the extreme home/road splits (.709 career OPS at Dodger Stadium, .900 OPS on the road), and if anyone can figure out how to harness Road Loney at home the Dodgers will benefit greatly.  We can also look to the recent past to find another Dodger first baseman who struggled as he entered his arbitration seasons.

Eric Karros -- who is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this season, by the way -- was once in the very same shoes worn by Loney today.  Karros won rookie of the year in 1992, hitting 20 home runs with 88 runs batted in, then struggled over the next two seasons.  Loney took over Dodger first base duties in June 2007, and hit .331 with 15 dingers, only to descend into mediocrity over his next two seasons.

Eric Karros James Loney
Year OPS+ (NL 1B rank) Year OPS+ (NL 1B rank)
1st year 1992 106 (9th of 12) 2007 134 (4th of 16)
2nd year    
1993 88 (13th of 15) 2008 103 (13th of 16)
3rd year 1994 95 (10th of 14) 2009 104 (13th of 16)

Heading into their first arbitration-eligible seasons, here's how Karros and Loney compare:

Pre Arbitration Years
Player Years Ages PA Runs 2B HR RBI BA/OBP/SLG OPS+
Eric Karros 1991-1994 23-26 1710 188 79 57 215 .254/.298/.417 95
James Loney  
2006-2009 22-25 1788 200 84 45 265 .295/.354/.451 112

Loney doesn't look so bad now, does he?  That .298 on-base percentage for Karros really stands out.  I don't remember caring too much about OBP back then, but wow.  However, here is what Karros did during his three seasons of arbitration:

Eric Karros Arbitration Years
1995 27 620 83 29 32 105 .298/.369/.535 145
1996 28 670 84 29 34 111 .260/.316/.479 113
1997 29 700 86 28 31 104 .266/.329/.459 110
Totals 1990 253 86 97 320 .274/.337/.489 122

Throw in the fact that Loney is a year younger than Karros was, and it's not hard to see a scenario in which Loney comes into his own over the next three seasons.  He'll pretty much have to, because the Dodgers need it.