Thursday, May 18, 2017

Braves Sign James Loney

By Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I was in the middle of writing a (longer) article on what the Braves should do in the Freddie Freeman-less present, but Atlanta decided to keep me from polishing it up by announcing what their plans were. The Braves have signed former Dodger and Ray James Loney. The now 33-year-old also has played for the Red Sox (he did?) and most recently the Mets last season. He hit just .265/.307/.397.

Before signing with the Braves, Loney had been in the Tigers' system. In 16 games, he had a .315 wOBA before being cut less than two weeks ago.

James Loney is definitely not Freddie Freeman, but what do the Braves have? Presumably, the deal is a major league one as the Braves acted so decisively to acquire him. That would mean that the Braves will need to find a 40-man roster spot - maybe Freeman? - and drop a member of the 25-man roster once Loney is ready to be activated for the next couple of days. That likely will be Rio Ruiz, who was called up to join the Braves for tonight's game.

(7 PM edit: According to Mark Bowman and David O'Brien, the deal is actually a minor league deal. As such, my opinion of the signing is much different. I like this deal for minor league depth.)

So, did the Braves make the right decision? In my opinion...no.

It's not that I don't understand the impulse. Atlanta is looking for a stable option to drop at first base without sacrificing much in terms of money or players (if they traded for someone). Certainly, Loney has played a lot more first base than any of the other options the Braves had in-house. However, Loney has hit a wall. It's called the 30's. In his 20s, Loney was a .285/.340/.421 hitter. Those are below-average numbers for a first baseman, but overall, decent stats. You might even say he was a poor man's Nick Markakis.

The last three years, or his Age-30 to Age-32 seasons, have seen a stark decline in production to .281/.325/.378. In his defense, his numbers look a bit better when you limit him to a platoon option (.295/.342/.401). Are the Braves going to platoon him, though? Seems unlikely - mainly because they lack the option to do so short of moving Flowers to first when a southpaw is on the mound. That, by the way, is not the worst idea.

Furthermore, a narrative about Loney needs to die. That is the narrative that Loney is an excellent defender at first base. It's never been particularly accurate and even less so now. Since the beginning of 2014, Loney has a -2.5 UZR/150. Of the 16 first basemen that qualify, that ranks him 12th. Braves fans typically scoff at defensive metrics because Freddie Freeman ranks so poorly in them, but context matters. Freeman ranks 4th in UZR/150 since 2014 with a 3.3 grade.

Personally, I would have stayed in-house and tried to talk a guy like Loney into a minor league pact as backup. In the mean time, I would have gone with Jace Peterson at first base and Rio Ruiz at third. Both would need platoon partners and I would have gone with Flowers and Johan Camargo until Adonis Garcia was ready. But alas, the Braves didn't call me.

No matter what the Braves could have done, there would have been no replacing Freeman. That much is clear. Things are likely to be bleak over the next couple of months as the Braves wish for a quick recovery for Freeman. As a great man once said, we are now living the darkest timeline.

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