Loney unhappy in Minors, working hard
First baseman opens season in Las Vegas, but wants job in LA
SALT LAKE CITY -- It was Opening Night for the Las Vegas 51s, and James Loney sent the first pitch he saw Thursday night about halfway to the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains.
If last year's .380 batting title didn't mean a Major League job, maybe 440-foot home runs will. That's how Loney responded to being sent back to the Pacific Coast League. He's unhappy enough to welcome a trade, but he's not sulking.
"I'm here because I love to play the game," Loney said before batting practice. "No matter where it's at, I'm still playing and that's the main thing. There are a lot of things going on in the world, and my situation is little compared to those things. I'll just keep working hard so I can be ready."
Loney told management last weekend that, while he wants to be a Dodger, if it takes a trade to get him to the Major Leagues, he'd welcome that, too.
"What I told them wasn't a demand," said Loney. "If they think that what they've done is what they have to do to win the World Series and it's best for the team, this is what they have to do."
Loney might be an example of the most unjust return to the Minor Leagues since Mike Marshall was sent back after winning the Triple-A Triple Crown 25 years ago. But Loney's not alone among 51s believing he was at the wrong Opening Day. Larry Bigbie has a pretty good argument, too. Of the 24 players on the Las Vegas roster, 15 of them have at least tasted the Major Leagues.
"None of those guys wants to be here," said Ken Huckaby, the team sage who experienced Opening Day No. 17. "Maybe the young kids who are taking the next step, but not the other guys. They've been there, done that. Everybody's hit .300 at Triple-A. It's hard to keep your head on straight and stay focused.
"But if you fill with regret and hatred, you'll end up burning bridges. The reason I'm still playing the game is that I take everything with a smile and do the job. Keep your mouth shut, because you can't control the decision-making process."
Having so many players on the cusp of the Major Leagues can be a blessing and a curse for the Triple-A manager, who in this case is Lorenzo Bundy, in his first season in the organization, but a player development veteran.
"We understand the pain and disappointment, it's tough," said Bundy. "But this isn't something new. It's been going on a long time now. Think about when the Dodgers had that infield of [Ron] Cey, [Davey] Lopes, [Bill] Russell and [Steve] Garvey. Guys could get stuck behind them for 10 years.
"You have to understand that certain things are out of your control. For James, he did what he had to do, and right now he doesn't fit. He just has to make sure when the time is right that he's the guy doing well. He's a kid with a lot of confidence and now it's time to get back to work."
Loney and Bigbie were in the Dodgers' final cut last weekend. Both said it's time to set their disappointment aside and take care of business.
There was no room for Loney because Nomar Garciaparra, as long as he's healthy, is locked into first base through 2008, creating a significant roadblock to Loney's advancement. Loney started in right field Thursday night against the Salt Lake Bees as the experiment to find him another way into the lineup continues.
Bigbie, a non-roster invitee, had the kind of Spring Training that should have won him a job. But he's a left-handed-hitting outfielder and the big-league team starts three of them -- Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre and Andre Ethier -- so when the club chose a final outfielder, it was right-handed hitter Matt Kemp and not Bigbie.
Although Bigbie had an escape clause, he couldn't find a team that would promise him a Major League job, so he agreed to report to Triple-A with two caveats -- a June 1 escape and an additional "out" if he lands a job in Japan.
"That's now an option," Bigbie said. "Japan is not like it used to be. Guys go over there now and come back to the Major Leagues. I could do that, the money's good and not take at-bats away from some younger guy here and still come back."
Bigbie suffered a bruised knee diving for a ball in the Freeway Series finale and still limps when he runs, but an MRI exam came back clean. For the first few days of the Las Vegas season, he'll be a designated hitter.
The starting third baseman for the 51s is top prospect Andy La Roche, although he said he expects to start about two games a week in left field in the club's attempt to increase his versatility.
Former 17-game winner Joe Mays continues his comeback in the Las Vegas starting rotation with two of the forgotten men -- Opening Day starter Eric Stults and D.J. Houlton -- along with Greg Miller and Travis Smith. Joining La Roche in the infield are recently acquired shortstop Tomas Perez, promising second baseman Tony Abreu and Mitch Jones at first. The Opening Day outfield was Delwyn Young, Choo Freeman and Loney, with Kelly Stinnett behind the plate.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.