Jonathan Lucroy's return to elite status gives Brewers a great trade chip
Lucroy has rebounded from last season's toe injury and concussion issues to again be one of the game's top catchers
Coming into the 2016 season, it was no secret the Brewers would not be very good. Owner Mark Attanasio and GM David Stearns were both open about the team's status as a rebuilder and the need to take a step back so they can build for the future. Rebuilds are painful, but sometimes they're necessary.
Over the last 10 months the Brewers have traded away Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Lind, Khris Davis, Jean Segura, Gerardo Parra, Jonathan Broxton and others to add young talent. As a result, they currently have MLB's sixth youngest 25-man roster at 28.0 years. They're also 22-27 and 6 1/2 games out of a wild card spot.
Milwaukee's goal this the season is to develop all the young players they've acquired in those trades, whether they're at the MLB level or still working in the minors. They also want to continue adding young talent, and in catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers have a Grade-A piece of trade bait. He's rebounded in a big way this season, and for a few reasons.
1. He's healthy again.
Last season a broken toe and concussion issues limited Lucroy to only 103 games overall, including a career low 86 starts behind the plate since becoming a full-time player. He started only one of the team's final 24 games in 2015 and that was at first base, not at catcher. Catcher is a brutal position and Lucroy took a beating physically last year.
This season Lucroy has been healthy, and that was always going to be the key to getting back on track. He's playing in 46 of the team's 49 games, including 39 starts behind the plate. His 351 1/3 innings behind the plate are the third most in baseball behind noted workhorses Yadier Molina (395 1/3) and Salvador Perez (368 1/3).
The Brewers reportedly set a high price for Lucroy in trade talks over the winter and understandably so. But, with the toe and concussion problems last year, teams were wary of paying big. Now Lucroy is showing that he is 100 percent physically and again able to carry a full season's workload at the game's most demanding position.
2. The power has returned.
Two seasons ago Lucroy set a new MLB record with 53 doubles by a catcher. The previous record was held by Ivan Rodriguez, who had 47 doubles in 1996. Add in 13 homers and two triples and Lucroy finished the season with 68 extra-base hits and a .465 slugging percentage.
From 2012-14, when he emerged as one of the game's top hitting catchers, Lucroy slugged .472 with a .175 isolated power (extra bases per at-bat). That was on par with players like Adrian Gonzalez (.469 SLG and .179 ISO) and Prince Fielder (.477 SLG and .187 ISO). Only Buster Posey put up better power numbers among catchers.
Last year Lucroy dipped down to a .391 SLG and a .127 ISO, both the lowest since his rookie season. He hit only seven homers after averaging 14 per year from 2011-14, and he legged out only 20 doubles. The injuries really took the punch out of his bat. Not coincidentally, his ground ball rate jumped to a career high 44.7 percent. Ground balls rarely go for extra bases.
This season Lucroy is slugging .491 with a .207 ISO after going 2 for 5 with a home run Saturday. It was his eighth homer of the season, already one more than he hit all of last year. He's on pace for 30 doubles too. Lucroy is healthy and hitting the ball in the air (34.6 percent grounders) and good things are happening.
3. His defense remains top notch.
Beyond the bat -- Lucroy hit .297/.359/.472 (126 OPS+) from 2012-14 and is at .284/.344/.491 (121 OPS+) this year -- Lucroy has always been a highly skilled defender, and that remains the case. He's thrown out 20 of 49 attempted base stealers in 2016, a 41 percent success rate that is well above the 32 percent league average.
Also, Lucroy remains a top notch pitch-framer according to both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus. A few years back he was statistically the best pitch-framer in the game, and he is still among baseball's elite at turning borderline pitches into strikes. That's a very valuable skill. Lucroy's a great two-way player when healthy.
The healthy and production version of Lucroy is a highly valuable player who is very in demand. He is under contract through 2017 -- well, he will be once his no-brainer $5.25 million club option is picked up after the season -- so he's not a rental either. No, he's not under control long-term, but any team that trades for Lucroy at the deadline will have him for two postseason runs, not one.
Which teams could use a catcher like Lucroy? Well, lots. The Rangers immediately jump to mind and they were connected to him pretty much all offseason. The Indians, Mariners, Mets, and Nationals all make sense too. I wouldn't overlook the Red Sox either. Blake Swihart is now an outfielder and as much as they love Christian Vazquez's glove, he hasn't hit at all. Lucroy would be a big upgrade to Boston's already excellent lineup.
For now, the Brewers are thrilled Lucroy is again healthy and productive. They'll be able to demand a huge return in trade talks. Do they want to trade him? Of course not. They'd like Lucroy to retire as a Brewer. Chances are they will be unable to afford him beyond his current contract, however, and given the team's situation, trading him is the smart baseball move. It's unlikely they'll be ready to contend before his contract expires.
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