Why Wasn’t Jonathan Lucroy Traded This Off-Season?
Hey everyone, Steve Boynton here. This is my inaugural post here at SDI – I hope that you all enjoy my content. My background is in my long profile at the bottom of this article if anyone is interested, I won’t take up space here introducing myself or my story.
I wanted to start off my time at SDI here with a broader topic, one that has been prominent on trade rumor machines and on the mind of Rangers fans all off-season – Jonathan Lucroy. Many national baseball writers, professional MLB pundits, and individuals across many fan-bases thought for sure that Lucroy would be traded over this off-season. He seemed like a perfect buy-low target for many teams, including the Texas Rangers. I was not so sure that would or should happen – let me put forth a couple of reasons why.
Let’s face it – the Brewers are not going to be winning much this season or in 2017 for that matter, the two years left on Lucroy’s contract. Lucroy signed a contract extension before the 2012 season that runs through 2016 (he is set to make $4M this season), with an extremely club-friendly option for 2017 at $5.25M, a contract that will be quite a bargain if he can just manage to stay healthy during his age-29 season. These are some of the prime offensive years of a catcher’s career – something that is extremely valuable in the current baseball landscape, with the lack of high-quality catching talent. Fangraphs projects the Brewers at a 72-90 season, tied for last in their division, a brutal NL Central. Fangraphs also has the Brewers team projected for a bottom-five roster according to fWAR, with Lucroy as their top projected player at 2.8 WAR.
Lucroy is coming off his worst full season since he entered the league, his 2015 marred by multiple injuries (broken toe, concussion) which greatly impacted his offensive game, and kept him off the field and relegated to pinch hit duties for much of the second half of the schedule. He was clearly frustrated by the season, as shown by this quote on October 2, 2015 while cleaning out his locker for the season:
“You place expectations on yourself and the team and when you don’t meet those expectations, then obviously it’s disappointing,” Lucroy said. “Personally it’s been very frustrating for me because I haven’t been healthy all year and I haven’t performed to the standards that I feel that I should perform at, that I know I can perform at.” –Todd Rosiak, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
He may be right. 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.
On the surface, this seems like an obvious trade-now type of piece – while we should absolutely not take the standings or WAR projections as Bible, all signs point to the Brewers being terrible in 2016 (and likely 2017), and very likely not competing with the three-headed monster at the top of their division (Cubs/Cardinals/Pirates all won 97+ games in 2015, thirty more than Milwaukee).
So why wasn’t Lucroy dealt? Maybe these reasons are obvious to some, but I wanted to discuss them in case some fans had not thought about the trade scenario from the Brewers angle. I have found that many fans assume that every time player X is involved in writer-concocted trade rumors that they are bound to be dealt (to their favorite team of course).
I think the reason that Milwaukee in fact did not trade Lucroy (29) in the 2015 off-season is two fold. It is extremely difficult to gauge his true value right now because of his recent injuries (not the same circumstances but Rangers fans can look at Jurickson Profar‘s value right now, and think about what the Rangers think he’s worth compared to what other clubs may see as his worth due to the injury impacts), and the assumption that each prospective team attempting to acquire Lucroy believed that they are “buying low” when Milwaukee will view him as the 2012-2014 player they saw produce as a top-five catcher in the league. Keep in mind that his 2016-2017 contract costs the team less than what Rangers fan favorite Mark Lowe signed for with Detroit (2yrs-$11M), platoon-player Chris Young (OF) signed for with the Red Sox in November, (2yrs-$13M), or even the 36-year old soft-tossing OTHER Chris Young signed with Kansas City (2yrs-$11.75M). There was likely quite a large gap in that perception of value for the player discussed.
A second reason that stood out to me as to why Lucroy may have been kept this off-season is that the Brewers have very recently (Oct 5, 2015) hired a new, young GM in David Stearns (age 30), the former assistant GM of the Astros for the previous three years. Now you’ve got to believe that Stearns realizes that he has one good trade piece to utilize, a controllable player at a premium position, so he has one big shot at instantly improving an already-deep farm system that ranks 5th in the league going into the 2016 season by Keith Law of ESPN (rankings released Feb 10, 2016). Stearns also likely realizes that this was not a situation where Milwaukee had to unload Lucroy due to salary or contract concerns, and could afford to wait until this trade deadline in July of 2016 or next off-season to re-gauge the interest in his player.
Stearns’ thought process is likely to wait in hopes that a healthy Lucroy in 2016 gets off to a hot start, proves healthy, which will translate into assuring that he is again a top-five catcher in the game, signed at a well under-market deal. With the lack of high-quality catching options, especially among teams with playoff aspirations, Lucroy could very well be the prize trade piece at this season’s deadline or over the 2016 winter. Here are some examples of playoff-caliber teams with arguably sub-par catcher situations (terrible, old, unproven, or a mix):
I believe that Fangraphs is being quite conservative with their projection for Lucroy (2.8 WAR), and even so, that WAR is still projected to be higher than the above combinations for potential playoff clubs that could stand to improve at catcher. I cannot stress this enough how team-friendly this deal can be if he is healthy and productive, especially with the clear dearth of top catching talent in the league currently.
For a team that in dire need of top young prospect talent to rebuild, it would be prudent for new Brewers GM David Stearns to see if a healthy Lucroy can become the 2012-2014 player again and parlay that into demanding a high-impact trade return. Just last off-season, Jonah Keri ranked Lucroy as baseball’s 12th most value trade asset. It’s a tough gamble, especially for a new, young GM, but I believe that it was the correct move to hold his one ‘golden goose’ with the hopes that in a few months, teams with playoff aspirations will not be able to attempt to “buy-low” on Milwaukee’s lone superstar.