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It’s time for the Mets to pull the plug on James Loney

The first baseman is hurting the team, and there are other options on the right side of the infield.

MLB: New York Mets at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When the Mets brought in James Loney in the wake of Lucas Duda’s back injury in May, the offense that Loney provided in his first month with the team was better than anyone could have possibly imagined. Loney was one of the Mets’ best hitters in June, posting an OPS over .800 with a surprising .471 slugging percentage for the month.

To merely say that Loney has struggled since then would be an enormous understatement. In the second half, he’s hit .243/.270/.309. That’s just a .580 OPS, which is the sixth-worst mark among all qualified hitters in that time, and only good for a 54 wRC+, which is the fourth-worst. In fact, he had just one extra-base hit and one walk throughout the entire month of August. His brief power surge has proven to be a complete anomaly, and he’s not doing much other hitting, either.

If you believe in WAR, James Loney has been the worst player in baseball, over the last two months. His -0.9 fWAR since the All-Star break just edges out Eric Hosmer’s -0.7, which may bring Mets fans a hint of schadenfreude joy.

Loney’s season OPS is down to .672, which is not nearly good enough for a first baseman. Additionally, his season fWAR is down to -0.7, which is not nearly good enough for any Major League Baseball player.

With these struggles, the sputtering first baseman has seen his playing time decreased slightly—he was just benched last night in favor of Wilmer Flores at first base against a left-handed starter, for example—but Loney still does play most days against right-handed pitching. And the Mets are admittedly hesitant to remove the 32-year-old from the lineup completely:

The problem with the Mets’ line of thinking here, however, is that Loney really is not a valuable defender, and certainly not valuable enough to make up for abysmal offensive production. Loney has good hands and footwork around the bag, but his lack of range and stretching ability mitigate most of his defensive game. The advanced metrics have not graded him well there, either, as he has a -5.2 UZR/150 and a -1 DRS for the season.

Loney’s bad play cannot be passed over as just merely a slump or a stretch of bad play, either. While it’s plausible that Loney will not continue to be this bad all season, it’s important to remember that this is a player who was with the Padres’ Triple-A team to begin the year. There were several teams that could have used a first baseman that passed on Loney during the offseason, and his season line this year actually now closely resembles his line from last season with the Rays.

It’s fair to assume that this is much closer to the real James Loney at this point. His month of production was nice, and it was certainly a welcome surprise. But the aberration has ended, and it ended quite some time ago. With the Mets in the thick of the Wild Card race, they simply cannot afford to continue playing one of the worst hitters in baseball at a premium offensive position. Especially since Loney has no future on this team and has nothing committed to him.

Unfortunately though, the Mets don’t have any obvious replacements. Lucas Duda is making some progress, but a return is not imminent, and the Mets have no inclinations about promoting top prospect Dominic Smith any time soon.

Despite that, there are still a number of potential ways to align the infield to remove Loney from the equation. The next player most capable of playing first base on the Mets roster is Flores. Kelly Johnson can also play some first base, and a platoon between the two could be ideal, but Neil Walker’s injury makes that more difficult to accomplish, as one of the two likely has to play second base every day. Flores is probably a superior defender than Johnson is at first base, and the Mets appear to agree, as Flores has gotten most of the non-Loney reps there.

Flores has been platoon bat throughout most of the year, crushing lefties and struggling against righties. But he’s been getting everyday reps since Walker’s injury, and he’s shown progress against right-handed pitchers lately. Second base is probably his best position, but Flores so far has shown in a small sample that he can handle first base.

So it’s worth it to see if Flores can play first base every day and continue his progress against right-handed pitching. That said, who plays second base then?

Johnson is the first name that comes to mind. He is not a particularly great defender there, either, but he can play there and it’s his natural position. While the Mets and Terry Collins have played Johnson like a platoon player in his tenure with the team, he is not and has never been a platoon player. Johnson has no discernible platoon splits for this season or his entire career, which makes the Mets’ handling of him even more strange.

And since re-joining the Mets from the Braves this year, Johnson has simply raked, posting a 124 OPS+ in 64 games in New York. Simply put, Kelly Johnson can play every day. It might not be the most promising defensive alignment, but the offensive gains of the Johnson-Flores right side of the infield over Loney should make the risk worth taking.

It’s a wonder why the Mets appear reluctant to do that and sacrifice the defense for the offensive gains, considering this is the same team that just traded for Jay Bruce and played Yoenis Cespedes in center field on purpose. But if they are, indeed, uncomfortable with Johnson at second base every day, then there are still several other options they can try.

Johnson can play third base, too, and they can move Jose Reyes to second. After all, next year Reyes may be brought back to be a utility infielder to play all around the diamond, so they might as well see how good he actually is at second base.

Also, Matt Reynolds is now with the team. He’s shown some flashes in his brief stint in the big leagues so far, and he actually did start at second base on Tuesday night. Exploring what Reynolds could be at the major league level could have more long-term and short-term gains than anything Loney could provide the rest of the year. Speaking of player development and experimenting, Gavin Cecchini was just called up, as well. Why start his service time clock just so he can rot on the bench? Ty Kelly and T.J. Rivera are also around. The Mets have options at the position.

It’s understandable for the Mets to be hesitant to play unknown quantities and experiment in a pennant race, but there’s nothing to lose at this point. None of these options are perfect, and the defense will suffer, but there is very likely more value in trying them out now, even in a pennant race, than continuing to stick with Loney for the rest of the season, who will likely only hurt the team’s postseason chances just as much as anyone else could.

Loney had a fantastic first month with the Mets and was worth the pickup, but he has been so bad that, given his recent track record, it’s time for the Mets to pull the plug completely and try anything else.