Starter: Jonathan Lucroy
Backup: Martin Maldonado
AAA depth: Matt Pagnozzi, Robinzon Diaz
The Future: Clint Coulter, Cameron Garfield
After years of struggling to produce a catcher and trying not to hand the position over to the aged likes of Damian Miller and Jason Kendall, the Brewers finally found their man in the third round of the 2007 draft in Jonathan Lucroy. It took him a few years to get settled into the major league grind, but he’s quietly established himself as one of the very best catchers in the game over the past couple of seasons. In fact, at least one general manager considers him to be one of the top two backstops going right now.
At the plate, Lucroy doesn’t do anything outstanding, but really doesn’t have much in the way of weaknesses. His line drive and walk rates are just about league average for all hitters, and solidly above average for catchers. He’s got better than average pop, particularly compared with his catching brethren, but it’s hardly eye popping power.
Lucroy does have a fairly pronounced platoon split for his career, posting an OPS almost 200 points higher against left handers than right handers. That’s not ideal, but his career .266/.322/.389 line against right handers isn’t too far off of the catcher league average over his four seasons in the big leagues, so it’s not like he’s killing them there. If he continues to be something of a league average hitter against righties and absolutely kill lefties, well, it’s still value.
Lucroy also has earned himself something of a reputation as a “clutch” hitter, coming through with runners in scoring position at a rate significantly better than that of when the bases are empty in his career. The sample on that is still pretty small, though, and it’s very rare to find players who sustain that sort of thing long term. It’s at least worth keeping an eye on in the coming years.
Defensively, Lucroy has outstanding receiving skills that routinely place him among the very best pitch framers in MLB year after year. While it’s not clear exactly where pitch location ends and pitch framing begins, there seems to be enough data to say that something Lucroy does is buying quite a few extra strikes for his pitchers. It’s definitely enough to make up for an average to somewhat below arm in terms of throwing out runners.
Add it all up, and he’s one of the of the best bargains going right now in the game. He’ll make a mere two million this season, in what would be his first arbitration year if he had not signed a 5 year deal right before the 2012 season started. That number only goes up to three and four million each of the next two seasons. As if that wasn’t enough, the Brewers also own a 5.25 million dollar option for what would otherwise be his first free agent year in 2017.
Backing up Lucroy is the 27-year-old defensive whiz Martin Maldonado. The Puerto Rican is an outstanding pitch framer in his own right, but also has the kind of arm that tends to get associated with great defenders behind the dish. Offensively, he’s an aggressive hitter with some pop and better walk numbers than might be expected from such a free swinger. The overall profile is not quite the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher, but it’s close enough.
After those two, things get pretty thin in a hurry. In the offseason, the Brewers signed both Robinzon Diaz and Matt Pagnozzi to minor league deals and they have the most spring training at bats behind the dish after Lucroy and Maldonado. Both guys have a bit of big league experience, though Diaz not since 2009. The Brewers will probably be on the lookout for upgrades as rosters are cut down late in camp, though the same can probably be said of most clubs.
Further down in the system, the Brewers do have their 2012 first pick Clint Coulter. The Brewers pushed him a bit in 2013, and he ended up struggling both at the plate and with injuries and had to be demoted a couple of times. Developing catchers can be a time consuming process, so patience is going to be important with Coulter. 2009 second rounder Cameron Garfield will turn 23 in May and has yet to play above A-ball, but he still has a chance to have some sort of big league career if he can navigate the always tricky jump to AA this year.
Best Case Scenario:
Both Lucroy (.320/.368/.513) and Maldonado (.266/.321/.408) put up offensive slash lines like their 2012 campaigns, but Lucroy is able to stay healthy the whole year this time. That sort of combination would easily give the team top three overall catcher production, and could quite possibly challenge for the top catching duo in the entire league.
Worst Case Scenario:
Even with the new plate blocking rules in place, catching is still one of the most physically demanding positions in all of sports and catchers tend to get hurt. If Lucroy misses significant time and the team doesn’t get the same sort of production from Maldonado he put up in Lucroy’s absence in 2012, the catchers’ spot could turn into a true offensive black hole.
Most Likely Scenario:
Lucroy avoids the early struggles of 2013 (.253/.306/.399 in April and May) but doesn’t have quite the crazy run through the summer, and puts up offensive numbers fairly similar overall. Maldonado sees a sizable jump from his .214 batting average on balls in play in 2013, which doesn’t get him to where he was in 2012 but makes the ending line look a lot better than last year. Both continue on being excellent defensively in their own unique way and the position is once again among the more productive units in MLB.
Lucroy PECOTA projection: .272/.325/.410
Lucroy ZiPS projection: .276/.331/.437
Maldonado PECOTA projection: .235/.298/.372
Maldonado ZiPS projection: .224/.285/.353