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Let's wait on Jonathan Lucroy

All of a sudden, after two years of sticking with Jason Kendall, the Brewers look like they're ready to make a move behind the plate. Frankly, it's about time. Earlier this week, Doug Melvin told Arn Tellem (who represents Jason Kendall) not to expect a $5 million offer to return to the Brewers next season. That's a lot nicer than what I would have said, but I'm ok with any steps taken to imply Kendall won't be starting 130+ games for the Brewers again next season.

At the same time, Jonathan Lucroy is having a very nice run in the AFL after an impressive season in Huntsville (where he hit .267/.380/.417), and Doug Melvin is starting to speak publicly about the possibility that Lucroy could make the jump directly to the big leagues next season. Melvin has compared Lucroy to Russell Martin, Chris Snyder and Kurt Suzuki, who all made the jump directly from AA to the majors at catcher, and did so with some level of success.

Now, it's possible Melvin is just posturing, as he's been known to do in the past: In January, for example, Melvin said the Brewers were out of money, then signed Braden Looper less than two weeks later. It's entirely possible that Melvin is raising the possibility that he'll go forward with the assets he has in an effort to get Kendall to lower his asking price, at which point the two sides will agree to a deal and I will probably vomit. Any to-do list for this offseason should include the following line: "Do not re-sign Jason Kendall, at any price, for any role."

With that said, I'm not sure Jonathan Lucroy is the answer either, at least not yet: He's 23 years old, but he's had just two full seasons as a professional. Yes, he's posted a .380 career minor league OBP, but he's also never played above AA. And while he is hitting pretty well against elite competition in the Arizona Fall League, we have to be careful not to put too much weight into what happens down there: Lucroy is hitting .366/.364/.585, but the AFL is one of the most hitter friendly places on Earth, with a .281/.357/.441 league average. Also, Lucroy's AFL numbers cover all of 42 plate appearances, so there's a sample size issue.

I know I've ranted against this in similar situations in the past, but service time also needs to be a consideration here. The Brewers have six years with Jonathan Lucroy under their control as a major leaguer. If he's not ready and they bring him up to the big leagues, that's one of those six seasons down the drain. If they wait until they've got more proof he's prepared to compete at this level, they could get six productive seasons out of him.

As good as Lucroy has been in the minors, I don't think you can make a convincing enough case that he'll be an immediately productive major leaguer. He has a low level of experience at the highest levels of the minors, and his most notable successes have been in relatively small sample sizes. I think he'd benefit from a few months or even a full season in AAA, and if I were in charge that's where he'd start 2009.

However, that doesn't change the fact that the Brewers need a catcher now. In my ideal world, here's how the Brewers would handle the catching position this offseason:

1. Make a serious effort to sign Yorvit Torrealba. Torrealba isn't an elite catcher (he's hit .258/.316/.394 over the last four seasons as a Rockie), but he might be the best one available on the free agent market, and he's capable enough to hold down the job until Lucroy is ready to take it over. The Rockies recently declined his option for 2010, and he turned down a 2 year, $4.5 million offer to remain with the team. Here's the deal I'd offer him:
  • Two years, $6 million base salary, club option for third year at $5 million, $500k buyout.
  • $250,000 incentives each season for starting 80 and 100 games, and $500,000 for starting 120.
  • Option year vests if Torrealba starts 200 or more games in the first two seasons of the deal.
By making this deal, the Brewers would spend less money on a catcher than they have over the previous two seasons, but would have a viable long-term insurance policy at the position. Meanwhile, Torrealba has a reason to work to retain his spot in front of the prospects. If he starts enough games to make the 2012 option vest, it will be because neither Angel Salome or Lucroy have emerged as a viable replacement. If that happens, the Brewers will probably need Yorvit to hang around for a third year anyway.

If this deal went through, I would recoup some of the expenditure by non-tendering Mike Rivera. I like Rivera and I don't think he's been given the opportunity he's deserved to prove he can contribute as a Brewer, but Ken Macha doesn't appear interested in giving him an opportunity to be a full time player, and Rivera figures to make about $1 million in arbitration.

2. Split time 60/40 between the veteran and Angel Salome. It's time to put up or shut up for Salome. If Lucroy starts the season in AAA, then there's no place to put Salome except on the big league roster, to either prove he belongs or not. As such, I'd divide the rotation, assigning Angel to two pitchers, and see what he can do with consistent playing time in the major leagues. Allowing Salome to catch 2-3 times a week (and perhaps DH during interleague play) should be enough playing time for the Brewers to see what they have with him and also keep whichever veteran remains (Rivera or Torrealba) rested and sharp.

I'm not sure the Brewers see it this way, though. In the article linked above about Kendall's return, Adam McCalvy said "neither Melvin nor Brewers manager Ken Macha have indicated that they view Rivera as a 130-plus start player." In all of baseball last season, there were only six catchers who caught 130 games. Most teams split time between players at the catcher position. There's no reason why the Brewers couldn't let a veteran like Rivera or Torrealba catch 100 games, and someone like Salome handle the other 62.

3. Reevaluate after the season. Unless injury, ineffectiveness or an extremely hot start by Lucroy come into play, I'd leave him down in AAA until September, call him up as a third catcher for the stretch run, and wait to make a decision regarding his future until after the season. In either of the above scenarios, the veteran catcher and Salome are under team control for 2011. If the front office feels Lucroy is ready to take over, then they have one of baseball's greatest problems: Two capable catchers. If he's not, they still have a viable catching tandem to start 2011, and can afford to be patient.

I like Lucroy as much as the next guy, but I don't think there's any reason to rush him at this point. I think the Brewers should be patient, max out his development and take the necessary steps to fill the gap until he's ready. They should also not re-sign Jason Kendall.