BOSTON — Is it fair to call James Loney‘s 2013 campaign a breakout season?
Usually that’s the kind of terminology that’s reserved for a young player still in his first few seasons, but for Loney, it’s happening at age 29. During his first two partial seasons in Major League Baseball with the Dodgers, Loney had a .915 OPS in nearly 450 at-bats. After that, however, he struggled to the tune of a .732 mark over the next five seasons. During a brief 30-game stint in Boston, Loney struggled with a new team and a new league, posting a sub-.600 OPS, but he was never really part of the long-term plan, anyway.
Last August, he was part of the trade that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to Los Angeles, with Loney coming back to the Red Sox as baseball’s closest thing to an NBA “expiring contract.” The nearly forgotten first baseman caught on with the Tampa Bay Rays, who have a penchant for getting the most out of buy-low players, and Loney has responded by batting .321 so far this season.
“It was obviously a change, but I think a change for the better, overall,” Loney said of the August trade that saw him switching leagues and switching coasts. “I’m glad it happened.”
And why wouldn’t Loney be glad? At the conclusion of the 2012 season, it was unclear whether or not Loney would even get another guaranteed gig in the big leagues. Despite his age, there isn’t necessarily much of a market for slick-fielding first basemen with little power and who don’t hit for average. Still, despite his struggles and uncertain future, Loney says that he enjoyed his short time as a Red Sox.
“We had great fan support and obviously the history here is one of a kind, Fenway Park and all that,” Loney said. “I had a fun time playing here.”
As for his resurgence in 2013, Loney’s approach to the game seems to fit his personality: laid back. Not that Loney doesn’t take his trade seriously and work hard, but he also isn’t stressing out about results that are beyond his control. Still, he can’t necessarily point to a change in approach or mechanical tweak that’s been the difference.
“When you’ve been playing for a long time, sometimes it’s just one of those things,” Loney said. “Sometimes you have a good season, sometimes you don’t. I’m just having fun and relaxing, doing the best that I can do.”
In that way, it seems that the Tampa Bay Rays really fit Loney’s personality. It’s been oft-mentioned that the Rays just seem to do things a little bit differently, and players around the clubhouse point to manager Joe Maddon not setting some of the smaller rules that other teams have in place. In Tampa Bay, you’re expected to show up on time and work hard, but beyond that, the players are allowed a bit more freedom to be themselves.
“It’s definitely a little different,” Loney said. “You just be yourself, there’s no rules, really [laughs]. You just play hard and be yourself and do what you need to do to get the best out of your ability.”
For years Loney has been considered among the ranks of baseball players who never truly lived up to their billing. But for whatever reason that potential hasn’t been realized, Loney is certainly getting the best out of that ability in 2013.