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Loney to Triple-A, could join big-league Braves soon

Matt Kemp became good friends with James Loney during most of a decade together in the Dodgers organization and looks forward to a reunion with the first baseman, even though Kemp hates the circumstances that created the possibility.

The Braves signed free agent Loney to a minor-league contract Thursday, soon after learning Freddie Freeman had a fractured wrist that will likely sideline the surging slugger for at least 10 weeks. Loney, 33, was available after being released this month by the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate.

“I’ve known Loney for a long time,” said Kemp, who played with Loney in the Dodgers’ minor league system and then in Los Angeles from 2006-11, the first six major league seasons for both players. “Loney’s a good guy, man. It’s going to be fun to reunite with him and see how he’s doing. He’s got kids now, married. So it’s going to be a little different from when we came up.”

Loney caught a red-eye flight late Thursday to join the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves and played Friday night at Durham, N.C., going 1-for-4.

“I knew organizationally we’d try and piece this thing together, and I think he’s a good acquisition,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He did a really good job for the Mets last year in pretty much the same situation. I remember watching him grown up in the minor leagues, managing against him. He’s a really good defensive player and hopefully he’ll come in and give us a little offense, too.

“I’ve known enough about him that he’ll fit right in here. He’s a really good guy and very talented player at one time. I think with the options and who was out there, this is a really good acquisition for us.”

It remains to be seen whether he can help the Braves fill the massive void created by the loss of Freeman, but Loney has a great opportunity if he still has something left in the tank.

“Yeah, for sure,” Kemp said. “His years in L.A., drove in 90-plus runs a couple of times. He knows how to hit, and he plays great defense. It’ll be good to get him over here filling in for ol’ Freddie and see what happens after that.”

Loney hit .265 with nine homers, 34 RBIs and a .703 OPS in 100 games (366 plate appearances) for the Mets last season, doing a solid job while filling in for injured first baseman Lucas Duda. He had a .229 average with a .387 on-base percentage and no home runs in 62 plate appearances for the Tigers’ Triple-A Toledo affiliate before he was released.

Loney has a .284 career average with 108 home runs, .669 RBIs and a .746 OPS in 11 major league seasons with the Dodgers, Rays, Red Sox and Mets. The Braves gave him no guarantees when they signed the left-haded hitter to a minor league deal, but it was clear that Loney would get called up — probably real soon — if he showed he was ready at Gwinnett.

“He played this spring, so it wasn’t like he was sitting around till now and we had to send him to extended spring (training),” Snitker said. “So we could send him to Gwinnett and let him play a few games, and if he feels good and we get the reports and it looks good, then we’ll fire him in here (in the major league lineup). It won’t take him long, I wouldn’t think, to be ready to go here.”

Loney broke in with the Dodgers in 2006 and had his best season as a rookie in 2007, hitting .331 with 15 homers, 67 RBIs and a career-best .919 OPS in 96 games. He finished sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting. Kemp hit .342 with 10 homers and an .894 OPS as a 22-year-old in that 2007 season for the Dodgers, after totaling four at-bats over the rookie maximum in 2006.

“Yeah, we have memories, man,” Kemp said. “We have memories from the minor leagues and the big leagues. We were kids, now we’re grown men. So it’s kind of cool to be able to see that.”

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