Smartbuilding #3: Trading Lucroy & Gomez | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

In my last “Smartbuilding” installment, I looked at the closing contractual windows that correspond with the new potential prospect windows that could usher in a new era of contending baseball in Milwaukee (if everything goes according to plan). That post was a start, but it left me wanting to investigate one key issue, because the mere idea of “closing contract windows” does not capture one substantive story of the Brewers necessary rebuild.

At this point and time, the most contentious issue, by far, is whether Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy should be traded. Mainly, fans are mostly concerned with Lucroy, it seems, as many will conclude that Gomez will be gone after 2016 without reserving that same sharp logic for our beloved catcher. I think there are several reasons why:

  • Brewers fans need some “face of the franchise” to hold onto, and Ryan Braun is not it.
  • Impact offense and defense is somehow viewed as more important to Catcher than Centerfield.
  • No one overtly says this, but there seems to be some implicit assumption among fans that Lucroy is a “disciplined” player, while Gomez is an “undisciplined” player. Fans speak in many codes, and there simply seems to be something inherent in Gomez’s “persona” that leads fans to accept trading him (but not Lucroy).

I think this approach is a mistake for one simple reason: both Lucroy and Gomez are the Brewers’ true impact players and, therefore, trading chips. If there is any assumption that the Brewers will need to trade away contracts and players in order to usher in their next era of contending baseball, the simple math is in favor of neither Lucroy nor Gomez being present for those years. That sucks because both players are exceptional; over the last three seasons (and counting), both Lucroy and Gomez are top 30 players in all of baseball based on WAR (according to FanGraphs). There is something painful about having two of the very best players in the game and not being able to win with them.

NL WAR Rankings Gomez (WAR) Lucroy (WAR) # of 1.0+ WAR Players
2012 59th (2.3) 27th (3.6) of 109
2013 1st (8.5) 42nd (3.1) of 103
2014 17th (4.8) 1st (6.7) of 105
B-R WAR used

Lucroy and Gomez are in the same class for the Brewers for several reasons.

  • They are both true “two-way” players (offering great offense and defense with their skillsets).
  • Both players are the type to improve their batting approach and discipline (indeed, both improved their K & BB rates in 2014, for example).
  • Their contracts expire in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
  • They will both earn extremely large contracts on the open market.
  • Both are roughly the same age (Lucroy is sixth months younger).

Perhaps the most contentious issue will be the potential salaries for both Lucroy and Gomez. When mentioning my opinion that Lucroy and Gomez are going to receive gigantic paydays, some Brewers fans scoff. But, the fact remains that if one compares the contracts issued recently — and some of the “landmark” deals at both catcher and centerfield — both Gomez and Lucroy stand to earn a huge deal. Granted, neither Lucroy nor Gomez is likely to receive the top contract for their position. Unfortunately for the small market Brewers, however, simply the idea that they might earn a great, comparable contract to another player at their respective positions is enough to price them out of Milwaukee.

Recent CF Contracts $$$ (Year / Age) WAR pre-Contract WAR through age 29 Best 3 Yrs (Pre)
Mike Trout $145M (2015 / 22-23) 28.6 30.6 28.0
Matt Kemp $160M (2012 / 26-27) 17.3 21.2 16.9
Jacoby Ellsbury $153M (2014 / 29-30) 21.1 21.1 16.8
Carlos Gomez ??? 22.1 22.1 15.8
Vernon Wells $126M (2008 / 28-29) 21.8 23.8 15.2
Melvin Upton Jr. $75M (2013 / 27-28 15.4 13.3 10.7

Oddly enough, both contractual markets are defined by teams extending their current stars, instead of the typical “free agency” deal. Among centerfielders, Mike Trout, Matt Kemp, and Vernon Wells each signed deals to serve as stars for their current club (at the time of signing). Melvin Upton, Jr. provides an extremely high floor for centerfield contracts, and no matter how much you protest that everyone knows it was a bad deal, Gomez’s agent will still have that contract in his back pocket as a “Carlos shall not earn less than….” Trout’s contract can essentially be thrown out because he is a once-in-a-generation player that was good enough to earn $145 million with his club holding full reserve and arbitration rights for several years. One might scoff, but Jacoby Ellsbury is not a bad comparison for the current Gomez, especially if Gomez recovers from his early season defensive hiccups (and continues to shred extra base hits).

Recent C Contracts Total Value WAR pre-Contract WAR through age 29 Best 3 Yrs (Pre)
Joe Mauer $184M (2011 / 27-28) 33.2 38.9 19.5
Russell Martin $82M (2015 / 31-32) 29.9 20.3 15.3
Jonathan Lucroy ??? 14.7 14.7 13.4
Yadier Molina $75M (2013 / 29-30) 21.0 21.0 13.1
Brian McCann $85M (2014 / 29-30) 23.4 23.4 13.4
Buster Posey $167M (2013 / 25-26) 12.5 24.9 12.6

The catching market is even more difficult to judge because it is defined by (a) serious “face of franchise” contracts, and (b) free agency deals based on a few very good seasons. This is exactly where Lucroy is as a catcher: he’s defined himself as a solid discipline / contact bat, and if he doesn’t hit for extreme power, he makes up for that with his ability to get on base and hit for average. His defense might make him even more valuable as front offices come to appreciate “pitch framing” more and more (a recent interview with Kyle Schwarber confirms pitch-framing is “what’s up” in front offices). I can’t be the only one who sees the catching market as a total wild card: Molina, arguably just as good as Posey (in an “all-around” sense) and more established at the time of his recent extension, did not sign for very much money (all things considered). On the other hand, Russell Martin positively cashed in on his two great years in Pittsburgh (check out the jump in WAR between his “age 29” and “pre-contract (31)” seasons).

These contracts unfortunately take many arguments away from Brewers fans hoping for a hometown discount: it’s not enough to say that both players “only recently” stormed the stage as stars. If their physical tools and mental approaches to the game are sustainable, teams will not be thrown off by the fact that both players broke out relatively recently. This point may even be moot in Lucroy’s case, who could have two more full seasons before free agency (on top of 2015). Both Lucroy and Gomez are true stars in the National League, and they both compare favorably with recent “industry standard” contracts.

Remaining Control
One final argument might compel Brewers fans to support keeping Lucroy through 2017, instead of trading him. The basic idea goes something like this: “Gomez should be traded first, because it is clearer that his contract will expire before the Brewers can contend again.” On the other hand, Lucroy’s remaining contract and option gives him the chance to help turnaround the club during a 2017 season that could promise several high-minors players (not to mention any potential free agents and trade returns from this season).

The trouble is, and some Brewers fans have spoken about this already, the Brewers owe Lucroy approximately $12.8 million tops from 2015 through 2017 (counting full seasons; the 2015 tab is obviously lower already). Given that one can easily establish that Lucroy’s free-market value would  be at least $51 million for those three seasons, it is indisputable that Lucroy serves as one of the most valuable trading chips in all of baseball (it’s not easy to find players that could be traded at a pay rate that is approximately 1/4 of their actual value). The same logic that makes Gomez so valuable (he’s another team-friendly player that will earn less than half of his free market value in 2016) makes Lucroy a no-brainer to trade.

Wild Card
Furthermore, a few unpredictable issues should factor into both Gomez and Lucroy trade consideration:

  • Both players play the game in such a way that they could be injured (this has already happened in 2015).
  •  If Lucroy is injured behind the plate, or wears down, his bat might eventually have to play at 1B.

The injury issue hangs over every player, so the fact that Gomez plays an aggressive, physical brand of baseball, and the fact that Lucroy arguably plays the game’s most physically taxing position, will not necessarily eat into their trade value (for, not many players have true “20 HR / 20 SB” tools, and not many players combine offense and defense at catcher). However, these issues absolutely eat into the Brewers’ rebuilding plans: if the Brewers do not time their trades properly, they will not only lose out on the potential to negotiate a solid return for both players, but they will be forced to hang onto injured stars while rebuilding (Brewers fans already saw the impact of this issue throughout the spring of 2015). Since the Brewers are not likely to contend, there really is not much value in the club hanging onto injured veterans that can improve the club; the Brewers are below a threshold where those additional wins will impact the team (for, it’s different to say two players bring an 84 win core to 90 wins than 54 wins to 60).

Finally, Lucroy could potentially face more time at 1B, which does not necessarily change his team friendly contract value (because the cost of his contract is so low), but could impact his trade return. If the Brewers wait until they are trading Lucroy as, say, a 50% catcher / 50% first baseman at some point in the future, one can argue that a good chunk of his value (great offense and defense behind the dish) is dissolved (since first base is an offense-first, defense-last position). Granted, a lot of these potential injury issues are out of the front office’s control (as seen in 2015), and both Lucroy and Gomez are so good that they will probably return solid value if traded in 2015, 2016, or, in Lucroy’s case, 2017. But, the Brewers are absolutely in a position where they should nitpick every potential angle of their trade return, which means that facing the organization’s current fate swiftly could also return the greatest value in prospects. Anyway, the idea of playing a mid-30s Lucroy at 1B should also give pause to Brewers fans eager to extend the franchise star.

Remember this: as painful as it is to think about the Brewers losing two Top 30 MLB players, the faster the Brewers make the right decisions to turnaround their organization, the faster the club can work on developing those players and moving along their rebuild. This isn’t to say that speed is the most important part of a rebuild, but rather, that the speed with which the Brewers make their decisions to go for a set of blockbuster trades could positively impact the value of those trades. That is what the Brewers must consider when weighing the potential of extending either of these players, extending both of them, trading either of these players, or trading both of them. The idea that Lucroy and Gomez might be gone by the time the Brewers are winning again is depressing, but their trades could also be the impetus that brings a competitive season in 2017 or 2018, rather than 2019 or 2020.

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