I wouldn’t say I’ve spent much time defending James Loney’s performance in the past couple of years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever suggested that defense at first base is important. But in the absence of many heroes with the bat (appearances in Philadelphia notwithstanding), putting their best foot forward defensively seems to be a huge contributor to the Dodgers’ success, and even with his shaky hitting, I’m not comfortable when Loney isn’t in the lineup.
The Dodgers have a few players whose contributions with the glove have been valuable, such as Loney, Tony Gwynn Jr. and (when healthy) Mark Ellis. Defense has been Juan Uribe’s one redeeming quality as a Dodger, while Jerry Hairston Jr. was sensational in April at third base, though perhaps that was a fluke.
Defense has made a difference for the pitching staff and in the standings, and, especially when Matt Kemp is sidelined, I’m not sure that the Dodgers have the kind of bats that call for messing with that defense. In particular, Juan Rivera is not so valuable at the plate that I’m happy when he’s playing first base, even against left-handed pitchers. Judging by Fangraphs’ ratings, defense propels Loney into the ranks of adequacy among National League first basemen, non-Joey Votto division – and that doesn’t factor in his above-average ability to rein in the sometimes wayward throws from the left side of the infield. In a crucial situation, you can always pinch-hit for Loney.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that Loney and Gwynn are both left-handed hitters, because keeping each in the lineup while batting them eighth against lefty pitchers would seem like a satisfactory solution. But that’s not possible, which poses problems in a lineup that also includes lefty hitters in Dee Gordon, Andre Ethier and often Bobby Abreu.
Still, until Kemp’s return, I would probably keep both Loney and Gwynn in the lineup, batting one sixth and the other eighth. (That ideal lineup would probably have A.J. Ellis leading off, but that’s another matter.) Elian Herrera and Hairston would be the other infielders to go with Gordon and Loney. If Uribe returns to action next week from the disabled list, I’d then consider platooning Herrera, a capable looking outfielder, and Gwynn in center until Kemp recovers.
Next year, presumably, the Dodgers will go in an entirely different direction at first base. But for now, Loney remains the best one they have.