Jonathan Lucroy deserves an extension; Texas should give it to him
Full disclosure: I’ve wanted the Rangers to acquire a long-term solution at catcher for a while. I’ve been banging the drum for Jonathan Lucroy for over a year now. August 1st came, and I was ecstatic . Even when #RangersCatcherMagic was happening, I still wanted to JD to dial up Milwaukee to bring over the multi-dimensional catcher. The biggest issue is teams are extremely reluctant to part with good players. That’s even truer at crucial positions on the field. The situation had to be perfect and Texas had the ability to pay Milwaukee’s price receiving a top five catcher in the game today. By my count, since Pudge Rodriguez left for the Marlins after 2002, the Rangers have trotted out 30(!!) different players at catcher.
Lucroy’ 5-year, $11.00M contract began in the 2012 season. The Texas Rangers hold a $5.25M team option for 2017 that they’ll exercise. Catchers in that salary range for the 2016 season are the perpetually underperforming Jason Castro in Houston, and the aging Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies. Exercising that 2017 team option is a no-brainer transaction for Texas.
World Series winning teams have great catchers. It is something that I’ve always wondered about, as it seems like every season the teams that win it all have an established backstop. Research confirmed my suspicion. Here are the starting catchers for the last ten World Series winning teams:
2015: Salvador Perez
2014: Buster Posey
2013: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
2012: Buster Posey
2011: Yadier Molina
2010: Buster Posey
2009: Jorge Posada
2008: Carlos Ruiz
2007: Jason Varitek
2006: Yadier Molina
These are damn good players. Two elite talents in their primes in Posey and Molina, Salty had a 3.5 WAR season in 2013, Ruiz was a very good player and in his prime during the 2008 season, and we all know of Varitek and Posada’s lengthy careers. There is definitely some correlation here. Catcher is a vital position, one without many elite players currently playing it. As discussed earlier, it’s even rarer for a team to be in a position to acquire an elite controllable catcher via trade.
Rationale for Extension
Lucroy’s been a great offensive player since signing his 5-year contract. OPS+ is a stat that normalizes a player’s offensive production percentage-wise with a league average of 100, adjusted for ballpark. In other words, if a player had an 80 OPS+ last season, that means their OPS was 20% below league average. Lucroy’s OPS+ in his last four healthy seasons: 132, 116, 131 and 129.
His bat plays at any position. The fact that the Rangers can get that kind of production at the catcher position is a distinct advantage over other teams. Chris Conner wrote more about Lucroy’s offensive versatility earlier this week while talking about how to replace Shin-Soo Choo at the lead-off position.
Lucroy’s proficiency as a game caller, pitch framer, and an elite defensive player has been widely discussed. Billy Casey discussed Lucroy’s pitch framing prowess shortly after the Rangers acquired him. To summarize, Lucroy is fantastic at the little things that matter defensively. What isn’t discussed enough are the intangibles that Lucroy brings to the table and how much he positively impacts the pitching staff. Sometimes, pitchers give standard lip service to their battery mates. That isn’t the case with Lucroy as we will discuss. The intense preparation that Lucroy puts into starts, pitchers, games and opposing lineups is something that he has in common with the great catchers listed above. The combination of these characteristics is rare for a catcher, as most MLB catchers are only proficient in one or two areas.
This combination of offensive, defensive, and intangible qualities are something the Rangers must take advantage of not only in the 2016 season, but moving forward as well with an extension.
“I’ve seen him in the clubhouse early, always studying, so it gives me trust about the pitch calls. He frames the ball well, so borderline pitches are called strikes. For me, that’s a big thing.”
Cole Hamels also spoke this week about Lucroy’s impact on the pitching staff during his short time with the Rangers so far:
“He really does put in a lot of time to studying guys and having conversations with us to know how we tick and what our philosophy is in trying to get guys out. That’s been nice to see that and to build on that.”
Jeff Banister also gushed about his new chess piece:
“You’d be hard pressed to think anybody prepares in the same way this guy does. If you want to be great at your craft, there is a price to pay for it. He puts in the work. That type of work gains respect immediately. From what I’d heard and what I’d asked people about him, I knew he was serious about preparation, but I didn’t know that it was this extensive. He’s off the charts.”
These are the responses from Rangers pitchers and the leader about their new captain steering the ship behind the plate. This is the type of piece that as a GM, you want to secure for the foreseeable future. This is a piece that helps your offensive production, defensive production, your clubhouse, and most importantly your pitching staff. The Rangers are in an enviable position. It’s imperative they try and work out a deal for the 30-year-old backstop’s long-term future in Texas.
Let’s say that Jon Daniels were to approach Lucroy and his agent about a contract extension. What is the market JD and company are about to enter? Let’s take a look.
Top catcher salaries in 2016:
Buster Posey, Giants: $22 million
Russell Martin, Blue Jays: $20 million
Brian McCann, Yankees: $17 million
Yadier Molina, Cardinals: $14 million
Recent multi-year catcher contracts signed w/ AAV (Average Annual Value):
2016, Salvador Perez (age 25 season): 5 years/$52.5M contract ($10.5 million AAV), was not a free agent
2015, Russell Martin (age 32 season): 5 years/$82M contract ($16.4 million AAV), was a free agent
2014, Brian McCann (age 30 season): 5 years/$85M contract ($17 million AAV), was a free agent
2013, Buster Posey (age 26 season): 8 years/$167M contract ($20.875 million AAV), was not a free agent
2013, Yadier Molina (age 31 season): 5 years/$75 million contract ($15 million AAV), was not a free agent
As you see, many teams choose to lock up their elite catchers before other clubs have a chance to negotiate with them. I believe the Rangers should attempt to follow this blueprint as well. While every situation is unique, I believe that there are many references to compare to in order to predict how the Rangers may get a deal done with their next franchise catcher.
New Lucroy Contract – What would it look like?
Lucroy discussed this possibility of prolonging his stay with the Rangers during an interview with the Ben and Skin show on 105.3 The Fan:
“I can definitely see that. That’s something that’s definitely a possibility. … Team’s great, the administration’s great, the upper management, coaching staff, the fans, you couldn’t have asked for anything better. Weather’s awesome. My wife and I are both from the south, so we’re used to that hot weather. We’re thankful to be apart of something like I said. Whatever the future holds, we’ll see, but that’s not up to me.”
Timing and leverage are going to be vital to Lucroy signing a contract to remain in Texas post-2017. I do believe that nothing happens on this front until the offseason. Timing and leverage are on the Rangers’ side in this negotiation since they control his option. I believe that the Rangers can use that option, along with other factors, to get a deal done to keep Lucroy in Arlington. By tearing up that 2017 option and providing Lucroy with a brand new near-market contract, they may be able to avoid a competitive free agency market.
As Lucroy has mentioned, the Rangers provide an important variable for his decision on where to sign long-term: location. Lucroy lives in Louisiana, his wife is from Lafayette, and signing with the Rangers would keep him closer to home and his family which seems important to him. I’m not suggesting that this lowers the price tag for a Lucroy deal, but it could be a chief reason why he might sign an extension before free agency. From everything I’ve read, it seems Lucroy is open to staying in Texas long term meaning this would be a two-way street. Some extension negotiations are one-way, with one side having much more interest in completing a deal than the other.
The last two comparable contracts with age are Martin’s and McCann’s, but the difference is that their contracts were inflated by the free agent market’s competition. As I mentioned earlier, by trashing his $5.25 million option for next season and increasing Lucroy’s initial pay for the 2017 season, JD could strike a deal that greatly benefits all parties. I’m assuming that if Lucroy became a free agent after next season before his age-32 season, he’d be looking at a contract in the $18 million AAV range for five years. That contract would take him through his age 35/36 season. Signing a contract this offseason instead of next gives Lucroy and his family security for likely the rest of his career. That’s appealing to any player, even more so for a position as hard as catcher.
If I’m putting my Jon Daniels cap on, my goal would be to keep Lucroy through his age 35 season. My cap tells me that by evening out the salaries in order to increase Lucroy’s pay in the 2017 season, the Rangers could offer four years in the $72 million range. This scenario provides an $18 million AAV overall, but factoring in the $5.25 million option in 2017, the last three seasons (if separated) would be valued at a $22.25 million AAV. I think this scenario would be extremely attractive to both Lucroy and the Rangers. If I’m JD, I’m making the phone call and beginning this dialogue.