But when he arrives at Dodgertown the following Spring Training, he finds first base occupied by a wildly popular All-Star that isn't moving. So the bosses give him an outfielder's glove and tell him if he learns the position, he might make it to the big leagues faster.
James Loney, meet Mike Marshall (the outfielder).
Twenty-five years ago, a scenario nearly identical to the one Loney currently faces unfolded for Marshall, only worse. Marshall not only brought to Vero Beach a Minor League batting title (.373), in 1981 he also led the Pacific Coast League in home runs (34) and RBIs (137), becoming the league's first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
Like Loney, Marshall was added to the postseason roster after a September callup. But his path to the Major Leagues was blocked by Steve Garvey, and the next Spring Training, manager Tom Lasorda and his coaching staff would keep the lights on at Holman Stadium while they hit fly balls to Marshall until dusk in a crash course on outfield play. Loney, a natural first baseman, has been taking fly balls in the outfield this spring.
"There are a lot of similarities," said Lasorda, now the Dodgers' special advisor to the president. "It was a dilemma, but for the club, it was a good dilemma to have."
For the player, though, maybe it's not so good.
Marshall not only didn't make the Dodgers' 25-man roster that spring, when he got back to Albuquerque, his first-base job had been given to Greg Brock, the first left-handed-hitting power prospect to come through the farm system in years, but one who lacked the athleticism to play any another position.
General manager Al Campanis decided that Marshall was more versatile. He was initially tried at third base before settling in the outfield, where he spent most of a 10-year Major League career that included two World Series rings but left many -- particularly him -- wondering what might have been.
"It took me until '84 to recover from being moved off first base," said Marshall, who now manages Yuma in the independent Golden League. "If I had it to do over again, I'd have made a bigger stink about going to the outfield. I'd be concerned if I was the kid. It will be interesting to see how he handles it."
So far, Loney is handling it the way Marshall did, saying the right things and doing what he's told.
"I can see how it was tough for him in that position," Loney said of Marshall, "but for me, the outfield will open up more options and make me more versatile."
Outfield experience did get Marshall to the big leagues in 1982 as a replacement when utilityman Derrel Thomas broke his ankle. Marshall took over right field in 1983.
Loney's in a tougher jam, now that first baseman Nomar Garciaparra has a new two-year contract and the outfield appears loaded with Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre and Andre Ethier starting, Jason Repko the versatile backup, and Matt Kemp on the cusp.
"People say I've got nothing to prove going back [to Triple-A]," Loney said. "I thought I was real consistent throughout the season. If I'm not in the mix here, there could be a trade. What I want is to be around to help the team win. That's the No. 1 priority."
Loney hit .380 last season at Las Vegas. Including time spent replacing the injured Garciaparra, Loney played 48 games with the Dodgers in the regular season. He hit .284 with four homers and 18 RBIs, but one monster game at Coors Field accounted for half of his home run and RBI totals. He then went 3-for-4 against the Mets in the playoffs.
Loney spent a month playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and monitored general manager Ned Colletti's roster moves, while not obsessing over them.
"I saw they re-signed Nomar and I heard my name in rumors with Boston about Manny [Ramirez]," said the 22-year-old former first-round pick. "Obviously, I want to help the big-league team, and obviously they've got a tough call to make. I got here in the right frame of mind, and I'll put up my numbers and see where it goes."
Marshall was a powerful right-handed hitter with average speed and above-average first-base defensive skills. Loney is more of a line-drive left-handed hitter, although his power is increasing, as demonstrated by that nine-RBI game at Coors Field last year. Defensively, he's so smooth that many feel he could become a Gold Glove first baseman.
In the outfield, he said he's comfortable enough tracking fly balls, but his game appearances are only a handful. His running speed is maybe average once he gets going, and he worked with a speed trainer over the winter to develop better acceleration.
With Marlon Anderson the only left-handed hitter on the projected Dodgers bench, Loney might make the Opening Day roster as much for being left-handed as anything. As for returning to Triple-A, Loney would rather not even think about it.
"I'm just trying to get ready for the season and not focusing on [making the team], because I can't control it," he said. "A lot of guys are in the same boat."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less