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For first time as big leaguer, Loney's future in limbo

For first time as big leaguer, Loney's future in limbo

For first time as big leaguer, Loney's future in limbo
BOSTON -- The Red Sox won't close the door on bringing back James Loney, but he's more of a Plan B, someone to be looked at later in the offseason if there's still a need at first base.

A baseball source put the chances of Loney returning at less than 50-50, adding there won't be any talks ahead of him hitting free agency. That's not a surprise in any direction.

Still just 28, Loney doesn't profile as the ideal American League first baseman, and that's for one reason: power. He's been an everyday player almost all of the last five seasons, and his highest home run total is 15.

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Loney is a little like Red Sox outfielder Ryan Sweeney in that way. Both were high Draft picks: Loney was a Dodgers first-rounder in 2002, Sweeney a White Sox second-rounder a year later. Both are lefty, both have projectable frames, both have line-drive swings that did not become mashing swings. Both see the 'P' word -- platoon -- tossed around.

None of that means Loney can't be or hasn't been worthy of a starting first baseman's job. But as a first-time free agent coming off the worst season of his career, he faces the real possibility of a one-year deal. If that can help him avoid going the platoon route, Loney will likely be agreeable to it.

Loney hit a combined .249/.293/.336 line with six home runs in 144 games between the Dodgers and Red Sox. A quick glance at the stats could make you think a player who has never been to the disabled list finally got hurt in 2012. For the first time in five years, he didn't reach 158 games played.

However, Loney sat because of performance.

"Statistically, I think this is probably my worse year, as far as all my stats combined," Loney said at the end of the season. "But I think, overall, you learn from a year like this, you work to get better. It makes you better. I think that makes you better in the long run. A lot of times it was like my timing, stuff like that."

Loney has played all but 30 of his 926 Major League games with Los Angeles. In the final two months of 2011, he had the best average (.357) and slugging percentage (.608), and the most doubles (17) of any first baseman in the Majors. He also had a. 416 on-base percentage and eight home runs -- twice as many as he had in the previous four months combined that year.

The luster of those numbers wore quick, though.

Quickly this year, there was talk of a platoon for Loney in Los Angeles, and his confidence took a real hit. Much like Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, whom the Red Sox dealt away in the deal that brought Loney to Boston in late August, Loney needed a change of scenery.

"I mean, obviously, you want to play every day," Loney said. "If you're not, if you're no playing against a lefty or someone like that, is it because you look different? Or just because of a numbers thing, stats thing? That's the way the game's gone right now. People look at stats a lot of the time and base their decisions off that."

Lifetime, Loney has a .248/.302/.355 line against lefties and a .294/.351/.441 line against righties. In 2007 and '09, he hit southpaws just as well as he did righties. But this past season was his first without a homer against a left-hander since his short debut season, in 2006.

"I'm 28 years old," Loney said when asked about the possibility of platooning going forward. "I've hit lefties in the past. ... We don't get a lot of at-bats against them, and if you don't get a lot of hits right away off of 'em, your average isn't going to be that good. Obviously, you're going to see guys that do play every day, they may not hit lefties good for a month, but they know they're going to keep playing for whatever reason. And their numbers probably get better, or you'll see that they'll go by just a month sometimes [not doing well], off just numbers [they had built up beforehand]."

Loney is going to work out this winter in Houston, as he usually does, with a group that includes Crawford and Adam Dunn. Not many teams are clamoring for a first baseman, and Mike Napoli is the biggest free agent out there.

The Rays could well go a different direction than free agent Carlos Pena for next season, but manager Joe Maddon said at the end of the season that it's been hard without prototypical production at first base. That could push Loney down the list.

"Well, if you're getting it from the shortstop, it'd be OK, if there's some sort of a balance out of it, but you definitely want to get [it] at that position, you're looking for all of that," Maddon said. "It's been difficult to balance it. You look at it -- we have a great run differential this year, but that's just based on the fact that we've given up so few runs."

Loney has a little Adrian Gonzalez in him, in so much as he appears outwardly cool as a cucumber 95 percent of the time. Maybe even more than Gonzalez, Loney is ostensibly relaxed, and not a yeller. Told those things worked against Gonzalez in Boston sometimes, fairly or unfairly, Loney showed a handle on what he needs to do going forward.

"Nothing matters -- personality, nothing matters as long as you do good," Loney said. "Nobody's going to care. Nobody's going to care if you're loud, obnoxious, arrogant, cocky, quiet -- it's all about production. So that's going to be the bottom line. And when you don't produce, you're too cocky, or too loud, or too quiet, or they don't care, there's always going to be a reason. But as long as you're doing your job, nobody's going to care what you do."

Loney is certainly entering the biggest transitional phase as a Major Leaguer. Two months ago Thursday, he was still in Los Angeles, his annual charity bowling night just wrapped up.

But even if he is in limbo now, Loney said free agency should be a time he can enjoy.

"It's definitely different," he said. "It's an exciting time. You get a choice, you get to see options out there, stuff like that, see what's available. See what the best fit for yourself is."

Evan Drellich is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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