One of the dominant story lines so far this spring in Brewers camp is a number of players under consideration for contract extensions. First, starter Shaun Marcum let it be known that he was interested in talking about a deal taking him past 2012, before he ended up agreeing to terms on a one year contract. Closer John Axford also said he was open to long term talks, but the urgency of those discussions seems to have died down since the team renewed his contract for 2012 as the deadline to do so approached. Amid all of it, there has been the ongoing “will he, won’t he” surrounding Zack Greinke’s representation status and it’s implications for a big money deal to keep him in Milwaukee. It makes sense that these players are being focused on, as each was a key part to the Brewers regular season success in 2012. What makes less sense is the fact that just about no one, with some notable exceptions, is talking about extending catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
Since coming up in early 2010, Lucroy has taken considerable steps to establish himself as a legitimate starting catcher in the major leagues. He was rushed a bit out of necessity in 2010 after Greg Zaun went down, and his overall batting line of .253/.300/.329 reflected that. He took a big step forward offensively in 2011, hitting .265/.313/.391. That was good for a wOBA of .310, which was just slightly better than the average mark for catchers in 2011 of .307. Of course, that number represents all catchers, including backups, injury replacements, so it’s not quite fair to say he’s a truly above average starting catcher offensively just yet, but he does seem to be on his way heading into his age 26 season.
Defensively, it’s always hard to say just how catchers measure up. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus had his defense a little below average in 2011 after being just a little above in 2010. His throwing arm doesn’t particularly stand out, but he did catch 28% percent of base stealers in 2011, exactly league average. He’s also received praise for his ability to frame pitches. Taken all together, it paints the picture of a defender who is right around average at this point in his career.
So when we combine all of that, we end up with a player who has become a roughly league average player in under 2 full seasons. There is obviously still room for growth as he heads into his peak years. He’s yet to realize the the sort of power potential he flashed hitting 20 total homers in 2008 at two levels of A ball, or the sort of high walk, low strikeout ability that he demonstrated at nearly every stop in the minors. It’s by no means a sure bet that he ever will, but considering power and patience are things that tend to come with some time at the big league level, it’s not foolish to at least hope those skills will show through again sometime down the road. In other words, the Brewers have a catcher just coming into his prime years who has already shown the ability to be average, but still possesses the potential to get better.
Trying to figure out potential contract extensions is always a bit tricky, because one has to balance just how valuable a team thinks a player is against that player’s desire to forgo some potential earnings down the road for the security of guaranteed money up front. The fact that Lucroy was called up so early in 2010 probably puts him on a path to being arbitration eligible in 2013 as a “super 2” and thus he would have 4 years of arbitration instead of 3. Like Axford, he is still 5 full seasons away from free agent eligibility. He’s going to make just over the league minimum this year, and then will be in line for a fairly significant raise next year and each year following if he continues to produce simply as he did in 2011. If he has a breakout at some point, the number can go way up, so if the team has confidence in his ability to produce, it can make sense to try and buy out at least some of those arbitration years now and avoid the potential to have to pay bigger money down the road.
Just what kind of numbers are we talking about? We have to go back a few years to find catchers who actually submitted arbitration numbers with their teams in their first year of eligibility. Before the 2010 season, both Jeff Mathis and Carlos Ruiz became eligible for the first time. To that point in their careers, Ruiz had produced seasons of 1.9, 0.8 and 2.6 WAR according to fangraphs, and Mathis had a run of 0.2 and 0.1 and 0.1. Ruiz ended up signing a 3 year deal worth 8.5 million to buy out the rest of his arbitration and Mathis, amazingly, won his hearing and was awarded a 1.3 million dollar salary for 2010. Considering Lucroy has had seasons of 1.0 and 1.7 WAR, the Mathis and Ruiz numbers give us something of a ceiling and a floor to work with. Even if Lucroy completely falls apart at the plate, he’s not getting less than what Mathis did in year one if he’s healthy. On the other hand, if Lucroy does improve by roughly a win this year, he’ll be pretty comparable to Ruiz, who was on pace to make something a bit over 2 million in year one before settling on the extension.
Given Lucroy is still a year away from arby, an offer of 4-5 years for something like an average of 2 million dollars per year would seem be an offer he and his representatives would really need to consider, from a financial security standpoint. If that number seems low, remember just how frequently catchers get hurt and, thus, why going year to year is an especially risky proposition for them. Of course, the deal with be structured with less money up front and more on the back end, perhaps 1M in 2012, 1.8M in 2013, 2.3 in 2014 and 2.9 in 2015 with an option year would work for both sides, though it’s always hard to peg these things exactly.
Ultimately, even though it doesn’t appear that anything is going on right now, something could happen on this front at any point. On the Brewers side, they’ll have to accept the reality that catchers get hurt more often than most players and that any deal struck will be based at least in part on the idea that Lucroy is on a career upswing right now. On Lucroy’s side, he’s going to have to leave some money on the table in exchange for securing a safety net for his young family. If the two sides can manage to do that, there is no reason that a good deal for both sides can’t be worked out before camp breaks this year. That would give the Brewers another “core” player locked in for the coming years with which to build around.