11/04/2004 11:58 PM ET
Loney locking in early in AFL action
Dodgers prospect getting swing back after setbacks
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
|James Loney hit .324 with a .397 on-base percentage over his first 18 AFL games. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Around the Minors: James Loney 56K | 350K
PEORIA, Ariz. -- When James Loney hit .343 this past spring, many assumed the Dodgers' first-base prospect's ascension -- despite turning just 20 this season -- would happen sooner rather than later.
But for the second straight year -- in the second full season for Los Angeles' 2002 first-round pick -- injuries stalled that progress. Loney hit just .238 for Double-A Jacksonville. He struggled with a broken finger and its after-effects, and was unable to find any kind of rhythm.
"It was tough," Loney admitted. "That injury put me out for about six weeks, and took a lot of my strength away. I wasn't able to use my hands. They put an IV in my arm for four weeks with antibiotics.
"That was a hard struggle. Trying to come back right after, I didn't get the reps I should've. That's why I'm glad I came [to the Arizona Fall League]."
Even when Loney returned to the lineup in mid-May, he wasn't the same guy who wowed everyone in Vero Beach before the season began. He hit just .214 in June, and .189 in August -- and never truly felt like himself.
"Being phsyically and mentally prepared is how you have to be, and I definitely wasn't either one of those once I came back," Loney said. "It took me a while to get back into it. It's one of those things you have to overcome."
The biggest thing Loney missed in his time on the shelf was the playing time every young prospect needs before he's ready to make that leap to the Majors. That's a big reason why he's in the AFL now: to pick up missed at-bats and try to find more consistency with his swing.
"That's the biggest thing, repetition," Loney said. "When you're doing repetition, make sure you're doing it right so you can correct any mistakes.
"It's been fun, going out and playing every day. It's a good level of competition. A lot of top guys are out here, a lot of good pitchers. So we're having a lot of fun."
Loney's enjoyment of the AFL has been helped by the fact he's hit .324 over his first 18 games. He's shown an advanaced knowledge of the strike zone as well, drawing nine walks against just nine strikeouts for a .397 OBP. There haven't been calls for Loney to join the Dodgers as there were last spring, but this is the first time since March that Loney's sweet left-handed stroke has been locked in.
While Loney's 2004 season may be viewed as a disappointment for a highly touted first-rounder, it's worth reminding the Dodger faithful that Loney still can't legally purchase alcohol in most states. He was one of the youngest regulars in the Southern League this year, and even if he has to repeat the level in 2005, he's still way ahead of the curve as a 21-year-old in Double-A.
The Dodgers also haven't hesitated to promote their young prospects to challenge them if they show they can handle a lower level. If Loney begins the year with Jacksonville, rest assured he could see Las Vegas before season's end.
The Dodgers have gone against the current popular wisdom in recent drafts, taking high school players -- like Loney -- while more organizations sought out advanced college players. The end result: The upper levels of the Dodgers system are filling up with young talent. And because of that, Los Angeles can afford to be patient, and give players like Loney as much time as they need to develop into big leaguers. Loney has appreciated the fact he hasn't had to go it alone as a young phenom being asked to play at a high level.
"I think it's good, having a group of guys together like that, rather than have it just be one guy at that age," Loney said. "If they're going to put you at the highest level to compete, it's a good thing."
Next spring, Loney will get another chance to impress at big league camp. If he can take this successful AFL campaign, carry it over into his offseason workouts and come to Vero Beach physically and mentally prepared, he could again be hearing calls for him to go north with the parent club.
"I just want to go into Spring Training feeling good and feeling confident," Loney said. "That's what I'm going to do this offseason to make sure I can do that."
"Whatever level I'm at, I want to do well there. That will make me feel happy."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.