A Cornerstone at Backstop – #1 in a 5-Part Series
In short order—four years, tops—Adrian Beltre will be riding off into the sunset, probably because his body inevitably betrays him. Let’s assume we ante up and Adrian stays through 2019.
Even if that happens, there’s the inevitable. If we know one thing, it is that even in this era of enhanced performance, legal or not, time will wait for no man. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens broke down. Clean players, like Beltre, break down sooner, even if it’s the fly ball that falls just short of the fence, or the ground ball the glove doesn’t quite reach anymore. Enough of those add up, and great players – players with the quiet but simmering underlying pride of Adrian Beltre – can no more handle being average than you or I could handle a Clayton Kershaw curveball.
As the gunbelt falls to the dust, another gunfighter must emerge. Who will pick up the belt and holster the six-shooter that has sustained us from the second World Series team until the end of the second decade of the 21st century?
I’d argue nobody in-house is ready for that mantle – yet. In fact, I’d argue we don’t want a gunfighter. We want a posse. And the members who might assume lead gun are legion.
Rougned Odor is the closest, and you know my feelings on him. Still, it’s a hard load for a second baseman to carry that mantle for a team. Craig Biggio had Jeff Bagwell. Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and later any number of Indians lumber carriers. Lou Whittaker had Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson. Joe Morgan had Rose, Bench, and Perez.
Of more recent vintage, only Robinson Cano is really holding down the offensive mantle for his team, and I don’t think anyone would point to the Seattle lineup as an ideal model.
Now, does the clubhouse leader have to be the team’s best player? No. But it takes a RARE breed to lead from the middle of the pack. Most of the guys on that list are future manager material – Gabe Kapler was one with the Rangers, and he’s a fast-track candidate to be the next guy to take over an opening somewhere. Derek Jeter would have a job simply by tossing his hat in, sight unseen coaching, I believe, at a high minor league level, but I can’t see him taking that road. His life is full enough outside baseball that I think he’s got more of the “ambassador to the game” role in him than to take the Joe Girardi field general path. But I digress (and honestly, if you read my stuff much, you should expect as much by now. We’re almost a full page in!)
Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels are uncontested aces. However, there is a culture in baseball that separates position players from pitchers. Beyond metrics or closeness in the clubhouse, it’s a challenge for a guy not going out close to 162 games a year, and living in a very self-centered bubble four of five games (appropriately, to prepare for every fifth day) to be a true, unsurpassed leader.
So my thought is, go fairly young. And you might have to go out the fold, although I have some thoughts on the flip side of that coin in just a bit.
But, just as we brought in Adrian and he now feels like he’s been here forever (even though he’s just starting Season 6), we can bring in the right player and caliber of person to fill those shoes.
Looking first at trades, then free agents, I see only one logical candidate: Jonathon Lucroy – despite Jon Daniels saying yesterday that the team is “content with their starting catching”.
Steve Boynton did a good analysis recently of Lucroy and his value, but also why he wasn’t traded. He’s not Buster Posey or Yadi Molina, but he’s in a second tier just below them. Defensively, he passes the eye test and is a metrics darling. Offensively, he’s had one breakout year, then fought off injuries. To quote Steve:
“From 2012-2014, Lucroy amassed 3.5, 3.4 and a staggering 6.1 WAR (wOBA over .360) in three seasons before his injury-riddled 1.1 WAR season in 2015. His 2014 was one of the best catcher seasons in recent memory – he hit .301/.373.465 with nearly identical BB/K rates, 53 doubles while grading out as one of the top defensive catchers in the game while appearing in 153 games. Lucroy was arguably a better player in 2014 than World Series champion Buster Posey, which was reflected by Lucroy’s 4th place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2014. His 2015 season however was different – yes marred by nagging injuries – as he posted a .264/.326/.391 slash line, walked less and K’d more, and amassed only 415 plate appearances.”
Let’s take a look at Lucroy’s spray chart from his last healthy (and MVP-worthy) season, 2014. I’d argue it’s indicative of what he is much more than last year’s banged-up bugaboo of a campaign.
This is his spray chart (key at the bottom):
Similarly, if he’s late, be it inside or out, his bat’s below the ball, and we’re seeing a fly ball to right. What happens when he squares it up – a line drive in this chart – is the best of both worlds: a shot to all parts of the field. Without having studied, I have to imagine metrics-driven teams like the Pirates and Dodgers, and to an extent the Cardinals, shift heavily on Lucroy – shading him to the left in the infield and to the right in the outfield. To have this much of a tendency trend and still hit the way he hit in 2014 is impressive.
You might think, for a catcher, the biggest problem with a foot-related injury (he broke his left big toe) would be defensively. For a player who gets as incredibly low as Lucroy does, it actually just means it takes more time to heal, and you have to be a monster in your recovery routine to get back to the field with the same flexibility. I’ve never read anyone question Lucroy’s work ethic, so I don’t think that was an issue. But the real problem with a left toe injury for a right-handed hitter is timing and power. You have to land soft but hit against a stiff front leg that’s taking all your weight and forcing it towards the center of your body – the rotation point, as I’d call it: an invisible pole running from your lower right leg and foot-up through your body, through to the top of your head. Here’s a shot to show what I mean, courtesy a master of it, Henry Aaron:
You can see Aaron’s weight shift is so dramatic, his back leg is off the ground, but his front leg is stiff; he’s hitting AGAINST it, not ON it. That left big toe is an anchor holding back his weight from drifting forward and sapping his power. If it were broken, or even just painful, his head and body would drift forward, his hands would drag, and the home run angle you see for the ball there off his bat is either a soft grounder to short or a popup somewhere back of second, if he makes contact at all.
Here’s a snapshot and video of Lucroy’s swing; as you can see, like Aaron, he has a slight uppercut approaching contact and his weight is against that front leg. If that toe is injured, so is his swing (this one in particular was a home run vs. Arizona):
Throw in a concussion suffered later in the season and you have a long, bumpy road to recovery. He played his first game post-injury on, and for the season, his power was sapped (slugging average down to .391 from .465 the year before and .430 career). Dealing with a front-leg injury, that makes perfect sense. However, there was some reason for hope.
He suffered the injury on April 20 and returned 38 games later, but found his groove after the All Star break, as this tale of two seasons clearly shows:
He was essentially his 2014 self after recovering, performing up to his career averages. What’s more, he never lost a step on defense. For 2014 and 2015, he saved 11 and 3 runs on defense, respectively, above the league average. He’s generally regarded as one of the top 3-5 catchers in baseball at framing pitches, and he finished with an approximate 27% of runners caught stealing, on average, across the two years. By comparison, Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez had 0 and -4 run saved in the same period, with almost identical caught stealing percentages across fewer chances. And neither brought the bat Lucroy does.
The biggest thing Lucroy has going for him, as a cornerstone, is his position. To play the third-most valuable defensive position on the field (behind SS and CF, in my opinion) and put up the offensive number he’s proven capable of while playing far above par defense, I think he screams “cornerstone”. Milwaukee’s not proven itself willing or capable of signing a megadeal for anyone since Ryan Braun, and I think they’ll live to regret that, as there’s a long history of former PED users (alleged or proven) fighting ligament and tendon issues throughout the latter halves of their career. With that in mind, they’re not likely to sign a 30-year-old catcher. If we need a burst at the trade deadline, we may have to consider parting with prospects to get him. Those talks end as soon as the names Mazara or Brinson come up as must-includes, and I’m a Jurickson Profar believer, so I’m not planning to do a deadline deal for the catcher, as good as he might be coming off last season’s injury-marred down year.
To be frank, I’m personally not a fan of position player trades at the deadline UNLESS you have a guaranteed deal in place, and unless the players he’s replacing – in the Rangers case, the two-headed monster of Chris Gimenez and Robbie Chirinos – is really a black hole in the lineup, versus providing at least replacement-level performance. Both Chirinos and Gimenez are likely to come down to earth this year, and Lucroy is an impact righty bat, but the price in prospects can be too high at the deadline.
My vote – Make it happen – go get him; he’s a good choice as a balanced-value trade target or pricy free-agent acquisition in 2016 offseason, gambling that Milwaukee doesn’t extend or trade him otherwise. Probably the best readily available candidate to add value to this roster, albeit for a price.
But if they can make the trade early in this young season – perhaps even before it begins – I’d be willing to entertain offers, so long as none of the names are Brinson, Mazara, Gallo, or Profar.
Trust me; we’re building a foundation from the inside out.
So, from the outside, as I’ve said before, I want Lucroy as a Ranger. But he’s not going to replace Beltre by himself. He has to have help from within these walls. And so, including Rougie, whom I’ve already delved deep into, my in-house vote for the next leader of the Rangers is…
And Nomar Mazara.
And Joey Gallo.
And finally, Jurickson Profar
That’s right – a multi-headed monster to replace the super-skilled superstar manning the hot corner.
The mantle of Beltre is heavy. I’ll argue too heavy for one person to carry, in the lineup, in the field, and in the clubhouse. But as anyone will tell you, as unstable as a pole can be, four of them anchored in the ground make a firm foundation, one that can stand up to quite a bit.
And so let’s build our Rangers of the 21st century’s third decade, on the windy plains of the Metroplex, with a free-agent pursuit of Jonathon Lucroy, who brings veteran polish with enough youth to string together a half-decade, at least, of All-Star caliber play. And I balance him against the double-down strength of, among others, three super prospects and a wunderkind making his way back from the long, hard road of injury.
Over the next few articles, I’ll take a look at four key internal pieces, one by one.
Take those pieces, already here and just needing seasoning to ready themselves. Throw in an All-Star backstop from Milwaukee, a future All-Star at second, and one of baseball’s top pitching rotation and bullpen combinations, then mix using a good dose of Jeff Banister.
Give me that, and I’m betting by Beltre’s swan song season, the Rangers have a ring within their reach.