Brewers GM David Stearns has been a busy man during his first year on the job. Eight trades, two Rule 5 picks, and a number of other signings and waiver claims later, the Brewers’ roster will be hardly recognizable this spring. He continues to add depth to the farm system while simultaneously supplying options for competition at nearly every position on the MLB roster.
Some of the moves have seemed like no-brainers (the Segura trade comes to mind), but Dealin’ Dave (Whirlin’ Stearns?) has made a number of gambles this off-season as well. Perhaps his biggest gamble, though, is the move he hasn’t made. The biggest trade chip he inherited when he took this job was Jonathan Lucroy. Spring Training has arrived, and it’s fairly surprising that Lucroy is still a Brewer.
This is not because Stearns wants to hold on to Lucroy. You’ve likely seen some reports about how Lucroy has been working with newly acquired catcher Jacob Nottingham, or how they’d like to keep him around to work with a young pitching staff. These are not reasons to keep Lucroy; these are simply positive side effects to having not traded him yet. Also, they’re thinly-veiled smokescreens intended to convince other teams they don’t have to trade him.
The reason Lucroy is still a Brewer has nothing to do with the value he brings to the Brewers. It has to do with a disagreement between the Brewers and potential suitors over his current value. The Brewers are presenting him as a top 5 catcher on a very club-friendly two-year deal. It’s easy to see why. Over the last three seasons, including an injury-plaged 2015, Lucroy is third in WAR among all catchers. With his contract, a catcher that good is a very, very valuable player.
So why the hold-up? It’s all due to 2015. Lucroy battled through a toe injury and a concussion, played in just 103 games, and performed well below his previous few seasons. A team interested in trading Lucroy could point to 2015 and argue the Brewers should lower their asking price for a player who may be in decline. When the Brewers blame injuries for his 2015 performance, other teams could say that he never really played after his concussion. “How do we know he’s fully recovered?”
Hence the stalemate in which the Brewers currently find themselves. It’s commendable that Stearns hasn’t caved and taken a mediocre return for Lucroy. At the same time, the Brewers are taking a considerable risk by holding on to him. Other than pitchers, catchers run the highest risk of injury (or at least general wear and tear) of any position. Anything more than a minor injury to Lucroy this spring or first few months of the season would kill his value and be a worse outcome than any trade they could have accepted over the last few months. What if he gets off to a slow start? Then they probably can’t even trade him at the deadline. Now you’ve lost half of the team control, and he becomes a rental player–which brings a huge loss in value.
A month ago, I guessed that the Brewers would still end up trading Lucroy before Spring Training began. I assumed a contending team would cave as the season grew closer and up their offer for Lucroy. That didn’t happen, obviously. Stearns didn’t cave either. He’s banking on Lucroy demonstrating that he’s fully healthy.
Ideally, Lucroy would show enough in Spring Training, and the Brewers could deal him before the season starts. This is in the Brewers’ best interest because it’s much less risky than hoping he stays healthy and performs well until June/July. It’s unclear how realistic this scenario is, however. Generally at this point of the off-season, teams are pretty set with their personnel.