Why Wasn’t Jonathan Lucroy Traded This Off-Season?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Jonathan Lucroy #20 of the Milwaukee Brewers in action against the New York Mets at Citi Field on September 29, 2013 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Brewers 3-2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)         

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):

Detroit Tigers: James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Chicago White Sox: Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro

Los Angeles Angels: Carlos Perez and Geovany Soto

Seattle Mariners: Chris Iannetta, Mike Zunino and Steve Clevenger

Texas Rangers: Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez

Washington Nationals: Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton

Miami Marlins: J.T. Realmuto and Jeff Mathis

Arizona Diamondbacks: Welington Castillo and Chris Herrmann

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.

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Steve Boynton
Virginia Tech alum living in the Washington DC area. 28. Became a Rangers fan after owning Orioles season tickets in the early 2000s wore me down. I couldn't watch David Segui get hurt yet again. Loved a bunch of the players on the Rangers so I started to follow the team. Pudge, Rusty, Juan Gone, etc. My love for the Rangers blossomed while I was in high school and then college, mainly due to MLB.tv becoming available (being that I live in Virginia). I have been an avid fan since that time, and watch/follow as many games as I can squeeze in. I have an eye for the analytical side of the game as an economics major and am currently enrolled in an evening MBA program through Virginia Tech while working full-time during the day as a pricer/cost proposals for a small government contractor. Within the past two years I have become an everyday DFS player on both DraftKings and FanDuel. I love it, can't get enough. I have been involved in rotisserie fantasy baseball for roughly 15 years, and participate in one league (with my father and his friends) that has been active since 1979 - I had to convert them to using the internet several years ago, my dad had always tabulated everything by hand once a week. Pretty incredible. I'm excited to be able to contribute to Shutdowninning.com and try my hand at a new way to interact with the sports and team that I love most. I hope that you all enjoy my content. Thanks.

Steve Boynton. On Twitter at VTColtTXRangers

6 comments

  • “Playoff Caliber teams”
    Texas Rangers?
    Marlins?
    D Backs?
    Seattle?

    None of those are playoff caliber.

    Additionally, the Tigers situation is a defensive prospect along with a veteran that can hit… that’s actually quite ideal. I actually think Realmuto is a pretty decent all around catcher also, but that’s not something I would aggressively argue about.

    Let’s look at catchers who catch full time (which removes Posey from the list), and there isn’t much talent there at all. Russell Martin, Brian McCann, Sal Perez… it’s pretty much a position of platoons and defensive specialists. Lucroy played WAY too much in 2014, he was due to break down physically in 2015. Catchers take a beating. The sweat spot between production and health is playing only 110-120 games a year. That’s on average about 2 days off a week. Have two catchers that are league average is more valuable than having one catcher who is above average and another that is way below average, because injuries and days off are so frequent at the position.

    • None of them are playoff caliber teams? The Rangers made the playoffs last year. That qualifies them as playoff caliber. The Mariners are re-tooled and will be fighting for a playoff spot. Again, playoff caliber.

    • Sorry to get back to you so late here.

      Many “experts” and fans are picking the Rangers, DBacks, Mariners, and even some (myself) are picking the Marlins to make the playoffs. Again, playoff-caliber means that a team will be aiming for a playoff berth late in the season, not that they are ‘playoff locks’, that term is a rarity in baseball in this era.

      As for the Tigers’ situation, I disagree that Saltalamacchia is “a veteran who can hit”, with Fangraphs having him as barely replacement-level last year, and projected as below replacement-level for 2016. Saltalamacchia struck out in 30% of his PA last season with little power and an average walk rate. James McCann is a prospect yes, one that is not projected to hit much at all at the major league level. This is definitely a place to upgrade.

      I also disagree with you that he was “due to break down physically in 2015”. His injuries were both of the fluky variety, not normally tied to a player being worn down or overworked. Just to recap them, Lucroy fractured his toe on a foul tip in late April, which ended up bothering him throughout the season. His other injury during the 2015 season was a concussion sustained (again) on a foul tip. Do you believe those to be due to Lucroy breaking down physically? I’m not trying to be rude, just legitimately wondering.

      I’ll add this too. Most of the championship teams in the last dozen or so years have tended to have a steady, high-caliber catcher at the helm (Perez, Posey, Posey again, Molina, Posey again, Posada, Ruiz, Varitek), etc. you get the idea. I think that BECAUSE the position has such a dearth of talent, you can get an even higher incremental increase in an edge over other teams by having a solid catcher, as Lucroy is when he is healthy.

      -Steve

  • Joseph Pytleski

    One thing I didn’t see in the article was if the Brewers even had options behind Lucroy to take his spot. From what I remember, at that’s not saying much, I don’t think they had a viable backup or prospect behind him.

    • They just traded for Jacob Nottingham, a top 10 catching prospect. He will probably start in AA this year. Other there backup catcher,Martin maldanado is fine defensively but bad offensively.

      • Joseph Pytleski

        Well, right…so they couldn’t trade Lucroy this season w/o a viable backup. Nottingham is 2017.

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