Loney could rise up depth chart this spring

Loney could rise up depth chart this spring

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers are waiting to see whether Josh Hamilton can get back on the field and be a productive offensive force again. Right now, he is out with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee and is limited to inside work on the exercise bicycle.

James Loney becomes more significant for every day Hamilton is down. Loney wasn't one of the more prominent free agents signed by the Rangers this offseason. In fact, his signing was made public right in the middle of the team's awards banquet.

But Loney, in camp on a Minor League contract, is an accomplished Major League hitter and first baseman, and he could emerge prominently in the Rangers' plans by the time Spring Training ends. He is an 11-year veteran who averages 30 doubles, 12 home runs and 75 RBIs every 162 games, with a .284 batting average, a .336 on-base percentage and a .410 slugging percentage.

"He has proven over time that he's a pretty tough out," manager Jeff Banister said. "He is an inning-extender with some power threat in the batter's box."

Loney's two-run homer

Loney signed his Minor League deal before the Rangers agreed to terms with Mike Napoli. Loney would have been a top candidate to play first base, but that has dissipated since Napoli came aboard. He is not discouraged.

"For me, getting at-bats and showing what I can do is step one," Loney said. "Whatever decisions they have to make, that's on them. For me, it's playing hard, having good at-bats and playing great defense."

Napoli is going to play first base, but he will also see time at designated hitter and need days off. The Rangers could use a left-handed-hitting first baseman. That was the plan for Hamilton before the knee balked, and the Rangers have no idea how it will resolve.

If Loney is patient and productive, he could rise to prominence in the Rangers' camp.

The 32-year-old has gained considerable respect in his career for doing that and being a great teammate. His saxophone solos were a highlight of postgame celebrations after a win in the Rays' clubhouse.

Loney's nice diving stop

The biggest negative has been the lack of home run power for a first baseman. Loney's career high was 15 with the Dodgers as a rookie in 2007. That's probably the biggest reason he had to accept a Minor League contract at this stage of his career.

"I believe there is more in the tank," Loney said. "The Rangers have been real up front with me and transparent. There are things I know I haven't done in the past that I haven't done to the best of my ability. The game wants you to hit with power and average, and they are going to take the guy with the most tools. Chris Carter hit 41 home runs last year and he didn't get a deal until just before Spring Training. That's the way the game is sometimes."

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.