James Loney’s white-hot walloping has upgraded his Dodger future all the way from non-existent to tenuous.

By doubling and hitting his ninth homer of the season (and third in four games) tonight in support of Clayton Kerhaw and the Dodgers, who beat the Padres, 4-1, Loney extended his swashbuckling slugging streak to 18 for 35 with five doubles and four home runs in eight games: a .541 on-base percentage, 1.000 slugging percentage and 1.541 OPS.

Loney pushed his OPS for the season above .700 for the first time since he doubled in four at-bats on Opening Day. Perhaps more significantly, since he began play on April 24 with his batting average at a season-low .165, Loney has basically been himself, producing an OPS virtually identical to his career .771. 

The news won’t light up Times Square, but it has helped Loney reach person-of-interest status. To be less opaque, it has reopened the once-dead discussion of whether the Dodgers would even consider keeping Loney in their 2012 plans.

Because of baseball’s arbitration patterns that reward service time with cash even when the performance wouldn’t seem to justify it, Loney’s salary would almost be guaranteed to rise from the $4.875 million he is earning this year to the neighborhood of $7 million if the Dodgers don’t surrender their exclusive rights to him by non-tendering him for 2012. 

Loney got a 57 percent raise last offseason, from $3.1 million, after OPSing only .723 in 2010. Loney’s 2011 OPS right now is .705.

The Dodgers could try to resign Loney after non-tendering him, but as was the case with Russell Martin last winter, that opens the door for any of 29 other teams to decide he’s worth more than the Dodgers think he is, not to mention for Loney to decide that a change of scenery would be good.

Under different ownership, the Dodger might be looking right past Loney to MVP-caliber first basemen like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, but that’s not going to happen with this organization this winter. And frankly, a number of healthy owners will stay out of that bidding as well.

Still, there remains a ton lined up against a Loney return, because Los Angeles might simply end up trying to address first base more economically.

Loney’s surge has increased the chances that the Dodgers could stomach giving him a raise, but then again, it has also increased the potential size of that raise. Though the decision isn’t getting any easier, the news is that there could be a decision to make at all.

If nothing else, it sure is a pleasure to see Loney look like a real hitter again.

* * * 

Clayton Kershaw pitches a complete-game six-hitter against the Padres (despite only five strikeouts against two walks)? Of course.

Andre Ethier gets three hits in his first start after the whole “should he be playing” brou-non-ha-ha? Different sort of of course, but yes, of course.