When fans question the strength of a position in the Brewers order tis year, there has never been any legitimate worry about one of the most difficult positions to fill: catcher. 30-year old Jonathan Lucroy has been a mainstay in the order for the last 6 years and has given fans a half-decade of memorable moments. However, as the MLB Trade Deadline looms ever closer, the interest in acquiring the gritty all-star catcher grows ever more present – especially during the new era of rebuilding led by GM David Stearns. Many of us fans have been torn in any possible decision to trade Lucroy early this past offseason, as teams had already approached the Crew about the catcher. But as his asking price seemed too high for such a risk, Lucroy has proven skeptics wrong thus far – prompting a number of teams to begin discussions with the rookie-GM regarding his most important trade piece and veteran star. The big question is: what might he go for?
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Production: Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Lucroy has answered any offseason doubts about his health and production. After struggling to stay healthy in 2015 due to a broken thumb and a late-season concussion, Lucroy’s numbers came back to all-star levels in 2016. Though the team arguably has less firepower than in 2014, the six-year veteran is slowly climbing to better counting numbers than two years ago. While he hasn’t walked at the same rate as that season (down to 8.3% compared to 10.1%), he continues to hit for average while driving in runs. It has also been an above-average year compared to his career, as he owns a higher average in nearly every category listed. Defensively, his pitch framing abilities have still maintained strength to pair with his increase in runners thrown out – as he’s thrown out 29 baserunners in 75 chances (39%, league average is 29%). Though his numbers aren’t what they used to be defensively, Lucroy can still be considered a strong defender behind the dish.
Would it Be Wise?: For a rebuilding franchise, trading away talented veteran players is one of the primary ways to supercharge their farm system. However, it does not make it easy to deal one of the best players on the team – let alone one of the best catchers in the majors – for unknown commodities. Lucroy built his career, his family, his hard-nosed style of baseball in this organization. Nothing will ever take away the memories he’s given the fanbase, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. But by the time the Brewers begin to win, Lucroy’s value would be completely different compared to now. First off, he most likely would be on the downswing of his career – seeing as he’s already 30 years of age. If the team were to re-open their window of opportunity, it may not be until 2018-2020, Lucroy’s ages 32-35 seasons. While many other position players may still provide some offensive value, catchers normally tend to burn out quicker – meaning that we shouldn’t expect all-star numbers on both sides of the field from an aging catcher. Secondly, it would require the Brewers to sign him to an extension or risk losing him to larger markets in the following offseason. An extension to one of the best catchers in baseball may run well-north of $16 million per year for at least 3 or 4 years – something that could fiscally handcuff the Brewers down the road like other catchers around the league (Brian McCann, Carlos Ruiz). The Crew may be able to hold onto him through 2018 if they extended a qualifying offer to him – though it would cost the Crew north of $16 million for only one year. If he doesn’t accept, they gain the top draft pick of the team who signs him the following year (unless their pick is in the top 10, then the second-highest pick). Being a smaller market team, money is exponentially more important than ever compared to larger market examples of New York and Philadelphia. The best option the Brewers have is to trade Lucroy – one of the most valuable trade commodities on the market – for young value. In return, the Brewers could nab a couple of players that have serious chances to produce similar or greater numbers for the Crew when the franchise truly needs it. So despite all the memories and emotions Lucroy has stirred in us the past six years, the best option for both his career and the organization is to trade him.
Players to Fill the Void: If Lucroy were to be dealt, the Brewers will need to fill a monstrous hole both in the lineup and in the field. As it stands, the Crew have a a few internal options that could fill the majority of the playing time. Most fans are already familiar with current backup Martin Maldonado, who has the highest chance of taking the starting job. Though he hasn’t gotten daily and consistent at-bats since his minor league days, he owns a .215/.289/.625 slash in 309 total games (923 plate appearances). Though his 2016 line (.149/.296/.595 in 82 PA’s) is incredibly underwhelming compared to Lucroy’s, there are a few promising signs. The first is in Maldonado’s defense, which is known to be above-average. The second is in his bat, as he’s done much better in the second half in his career – especially in August, as seen in his .255/.307/.786 line with 4 HR and 15 RBI in 102 PA’s. Though he may not be a long-term starting option, he could be a suitable stopgap until the Crew finds a solution. The same can be said for other internal candidates Manny Pina – the 29-year old veteran who is likely to take the backup role with his Triple-A success – and the offensive-minded Josmil Pinto. Beyond that, the closest long-term backstop the Brewers have is C/1B Jacob Nottingham, who is enjoying a solid yet unspectacular season in Double-A Biloxi (.237/.304/.643 line with 7 HR, 86 wRC+). It will take him another year or so to fully mature in the minors, but we could see him in the second half of next year if all goes well. The Crew could also look into acquiring a catcher in a trade for Lucroy or any of their other trade pieces.
Potential Asking Price: Lucroy’s mix of elite offensive production, sound defensive qualities, and leadership ability paired with his clean bill of health, extra year of control, and immensely cheap contract, GM David Stearns can put an incredibly high asking price on him. In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article written on July 2nd, Stearns was cited in saying that the team was looking to acquire more starting pitching rather than subtracting arms away. Though that was at the beginning of the month, his philosophy could not have changed too drastically, so he will be looking for pitchers in any deal. Another tendency that Stearns has utilized has been in his acquisitions of ‘up-the-middle’ players – or players who catch, pitch, or play middle-infield or center field. Traditionally speaking, many believe that finding the best talent up the middle is a solid way to build a team, as one can find or shuffle players to the corners to compliment them. He may very well be looking for those types of players, but the most glaring needs for the Crew come in the corner infield positions. Stearns may break his mold to attain a big bat to compliment his past middle acquisitions, though they may fall into his other mold: very young talent. In almost every trade Stearns has made, he’s acquired some sort of teenage talent that has a unique set of skills despite being three or more years away. With Stearns’ past acquisitions in mind, it may help us fans prepare for the haul the Crew could get.
Nonetheless, a player like Lucroy could demand a price of everything on Stearn’s wishlist along with prospect depth needs: young starting pitching, an up-the-middle player or two, a corner bat, and intriguing young pieces. Looking back at past top deadline deals, selling teams acquired anywhere from 1-3 top 100 prospects from the buyer. With Lucroy’s inexpensive contract, offensive and defensive abilities at a premium position, and relative popularity on the market, it makes him a solid candidate to hit that 1-2 top-100 prospect line along with smaller pieces of interest (though if interest pushed a team to offer 2 higher top-100’s there wouldn’t be much else beyond them). Overall, my best guess would be that Lucroy himself could be dealt for as much as two upper-tier prospects paired with one mid-tier or two lower-tier names.
Trade Partners Right Now: Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, New York Mets
With the Trade Deadline in less than two weeks, trade talks between the Brewers and other teams have started heating up. With the playoff races coming into place, the Rangers, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Mets, and Dodgers could all make a play for the veteran. But of the names listed, two teams stand out as clear favorites: the Rangers and Indians.
Both teams have struggled to find any answers to the position this season, and have been in contact with Stearns about Lucroy. Regarding Texas, their name had been floating around Lucroy since the off-season, as many analysts believed it was an obvious fit. But even months into the season, the Rangers have yet to make the move and instead found cheaper ways to fill the position after the injury to Robinson Chirinos in early April. However, with the rise of interest shown by Cleveland paired with 1B Mitch Moreland’s seasonal struggles, the Rangers may decide to pull the trigger before August 2nd. Due to Lucroy’s high asking price, the Crew may ask for 3B/OF Joey Gallo as the centerpiece. But especially as the Rangers’ recent roster moves indicate, they may be playing up the 7th -best prospect in baseball’s ability to play in the majors. Gallo is known for his power bat – as seen in the left-handed slugger’s career 145 home runs ( 40+ seasons in 2013 and 2014) in the minors in only 1924 plate appearances. His biggest downfall – as it normally is for power hitters – is his incredibly high strikeout rate. Though his rates have improved in the last few years (39.5% in 2014 to 30.1% this season in the minors), he can still be considered an extremely high risk/high reward player. Another name to make mention of is INF Jurickson Profar, who hasn’t found a regular place to play in Texas. If Stearns would ask for pitching in return for Lucroy – as he did this winter – he may opt to ask about RHP’s Dillon Tate (ranked #31 by MLB.com) and Luis Ortiz (#67). We covered Tate in a past post about top pitching targets, and the 20-year old Ortiz may also be on the radar due to his strong build that allows him to throw 92-97 mph consistently and solid polish with little effort in his delivery. He also has an above-average slider with good movement and a potentially-average changeup that he incorporates more and more. Complementary names that could also have value the the Brewers include: 3B Josh Morgan, RHP Ariel Jurado, LHP Johander Mendez, and C Jose Trevino. There have also been reports that Brewers scouts were seen at games in the lower affiliates of Texas’ farm system, indicating both a relative interest in dealing with Texas and a pursuit of even younger talent. A solid asking price could come in one of Gallo/Profar and Tate/Ortiz, though surely the Rangers could counter with the latter two and a mid-tier player from the earlier list. But with time continuing to pass without a deal, it appears that any talks the teams have had may not go anywhere.
As mentioned before, the Cleveland Indians have recently joined in discussions for Lucroy after C Yan Gomes went down with a separated shoulder. Despite the injury, the Indians may have checked in on Lucroy anyways due to Gomes’ meager .165/.198/.512 line through 262 plate appearances. Regardless, the Tribe has plenty of intriguing value in their minor league system to make a big splash with prospects left to make an impact for them in the future. The Crew could certainly ask for two of the team’s five top 100 prospects, namely with a centerpiece around either of their top outfielders Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier. While both guys are ranked in the top-25 (#’s 22 and 23 in MLB.com, both sit inside of the top-50 in other rankings), Zimmer would be the most difficult name to acquire. At 6’4″ and weighing just 185 lbs, the left-handed stick has a truly advanced skill-set that includes a strong and clean swing (58 doubles, 12 triples, and 36 HR in 266 games), discipline at the plate (career .373 OBP), above-average speed (44 SB in 2015, 31 so far this season), and solid instincts in the outfield (mostly CF and RF). With his mix, his ceiling could be that of a perennial 25-25 player if his power continues to advance. Compared to Zimmer, Frazier has a little more question with his plate discipline and defense, but makes up for it with similar speed and more power (and fiery-red hair). Alongside the centerpiece, the team could ask for power-hitting 1B Bobby Bradley (#80) or left-handed starter Justus Sheffield (#91) to fill prospect depth at much-needed positions. Other names of interest could include RHP Mike Clevenger, C Fransisco Mejia, LHP Juan Hillman, 3B Yandy Diaz, RHP Adam Plutko, and 1B Nellie Rodriguez. A generous and solid package may include one of Zimmer or Frazier, a lower top 100-prospect, and a third player from the list above – or an addition of one or two mid-levels with a lottery prospect if the Brewers also dangle LHP Will Smith in talks.
With the recent surge of the Houston Astros, they too may inquire on the right-handed catcher. With their C and 1B positions not producing as a contending team would like (though Castro has done a solid job behind the plate), they may be inclined to nab another multi-year player to help them win both this season and next. What also helps the decision is that David Stearns knows a good amount of the farm system already, and could simply use him to pluck a top prospect or two (i.e. RHP Frances Martes, OF Kyle Tucker, RHP David Paulino) plus a few teenage lottery names he acquired while tenured there. Though we know Houston has climbed their way back into contention, the Astros may be a bold pick for acquiring Lucroy at this point since there have been no news regarding the two parties at this time.
Aside from those three, the Red Sox, Mets, and Braves could also make a play for Lucroy, but are surely more ‘luc’ warm on him (was that too much?). Though Boston has the prospect pool to purchase Lucroy and then some, they are more inclined to trade for pitching – as seen in the Pomeranz-for-Espinoza deal made last week. As interesting as it would have been for Stearns to bargain with GM Dave Dombrowski, chances are it won’t happen this season. The New York Mets could come asking about Lucroy, but believe themselves to not be in the running for any major talent this deadline. Instead, sources believe they will pursue bullpen upgrades – possibly making them a good fit for the Brewers’ late-inning relievers. It was also reported that the Atlanta Braves were interested in making a play for a starting catcher for 2017. Since Lucroy has control through 2017, they may also inquire about the 30-year old veteran. However, a deal may seem unlikely due to multiple factors, such as his lack of contract beyond 2017, his desire to play for a winner, and the fact that a fellow rebuilding team would dish out prospects for him. However, a deal with the Braves may be the best chance the Crew would have to acquire major-league players as the centerpiece in return for Lucroy.