With their third round selection in the 2007 MLB Draft, the Milwaukee Brewers selected catcher Jonathan Lucroy out of the University of Louisiana - Lafayette. Lucroy wasn't a highly regarded prospect as he came up through the Brewers system despite hitting a strong .299/.379/.456 through his minor league career. He made his major league debut in 2010 at the age of 23, replacing an injured Gregg Zaun behind the plate in Milwaukee.
Luc managed only a meager .253/.300/.329 batting line in his 75 games as a big leaguer in 2010, and he was rated as 30% below league average offensively in terms of his wRC+ of 70. He did throw out a solid 31% of potential base stealers that year, however, and was valued at 0.7 fWAR despite his poor showing at the plate. He followed that up with an improved .265/.313/.391 line (90 wRC+) in 136 games in 2011 as the Brewers charged to the NLCS. GM Doug Melvin had seen enough of Lucroy after his first two years in the show to realize he could be the long-term solution for the Brewers behind the plate, and inked him to a five year, $11 mil extension (with a sixth year option) prior to the 2012 season.
From 2012-2014, Lucroy transformed himself into one of the top two-way catchers in the MLB and became a fan-favorite in Milwaukee. He hit a cumulative .297/.359/.472 (127 wRC+) with 43 home runs and 95 doubles during this period and posted consecutive fWAR marks of 3.5, 3.4, and 6.1. He made his first All-Star team and finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2014 after posting a tremendous 132 wRC+ and smashing a league leading 53 doubles while ranking second among all big league catchers with 11 Defensive Runs Saved. As pitch-framing as a statistic started to become popular, Lucroy immediately began to be recognized as one of the top strike-stealers in baseball.
Unfortunately, things came crashing back down to Earth for Lucroy and the Brewers in 2015. Like the rest of the team, Jon struggled to get going in the season's first couple of weeks before breaking his toe on a foul tip and missing more than a month of game action. His offense picked a bit up after he returned to the lineup and he improved as the season went on but he finished 2015 with just a .264/.326/.391 line, hitting 30 extra base hits in 415 plate appearances. His 93 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR were his worst totals since his 2011 campaign. The various reasons for his struggles both offensively and defensively have been covered extensively around the blogosphere. Luc expressed frustration with his and the club's poor play throughout the season, saying during the summer that "coming to the field and getting your butt kicked everyday is terrible...for a veteran player."
Lucroy will turn 30 next season and can still be controlled by the Brewers for another two seasons at a total of just $9.25 mil, assuming that his no-brainer option for 2017 is exercised. He will be eligible to become a free agent prior to his age 32 season and hit the open market for the first time in his career. The sentiment among a large number of fans in the state, however, is that the Brewers should work to keep their "face of the franchise" in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future.
A new contract for a catcher of Lucroy's caliber won't come cheap, however, especially after playing the last several seasons on a contract that's proven to be significantly below market value. Even though he had a down year in 2015, Lucroy's 91 wRC+ was still six percent better offensively than the average major league catcher. He may never return to his 2014 levels of production, but if he can get back to near his career 110 wRC+ mark that would be supremely valuable offense coming from a backstop. His defense and work with pitching staffs is also well regarded. We've seen two mega free agent deals for catchers in the last two winters: Brian McCann's five year, $85 mil deal with the Yankees in 2013 and Russell Martin's five year, $82 mil agreement with Toronto last winter.
While Lucroy will be exactly as old as Martin he'll be two years older than McCann when he is able to hit the open market, so it might be difficult for him to score a five year guarantee. It's possible he could have to settle for a four year deal, without the guarantee of a fifth season he could very well surpass McCann's or Martin's average annual value. If he can stay healthy behind the plate and continue his solid play from the second half of 2015, it's not difficult to imagine Lucroy being able to secure a $72 mil contract over a four year period, which would come out to $18 mil per season.
That would represent a significant investment for Milwaukee. The Brewers already have an aging Ryan Braun on the books for $105 mil over the next five seasons and that contract isn't likely to be going anywhere anytime soon. For a small market team like the Brewers, it would probably be hard to stomach paying Braun and Lucroy close to a combined $40 mil per season as they enter their mid-30's and more than likely begin to decline. This scenario would be even worse if the Jon is eventually forced to move to first base full time, where his bat would be nowhere near as useful as it is behind the plate (the average MLB 1B posted a 113 wRC+ in 2015).
There are a few factors working against Lucroy staying in Milwaukee over the long haul. The first is that Lucroy already approached the Brewers about an extension that would kept him in Milwaukee for the rest of his career last January, and was rebuffed by the front office at that time. Of course the club is now in a much different state than it was a year ago, as well, having hired a new general manager and embarked on a rebuild. This also significantly lessens the likelihood of a second Lucroy extension, as new GM David Stearns won't have the same attachment to Luc as Melvin or the fans do.
Given that owner Mark Attanasio has given Stearns "complete autonomy" to rebuild the club however he sees fit, I'd say that it is significantly more likely that Lucroy is traded this winter than extended. Luc has already been the subject of trade rumors this winter and is viewed by many as the best potentially available catcher now that Matt Wieters is off the market.
Slingin' Stearns has continued the rebuilding effort since the offseason began and has completed two trades in the last two days, shipping K-Rod to Detroit and acquiring young Jonathan Villar from Houston. Stearns has stated multiple times now that his goal at this time is to acquire and develop the best young talent possible, regardless of position. I wholeheartedly agree with that philosophy. Jonathan Lucroy is undoubtedly the Brewers' strongest remaining trade chip and at this point it may be best for Brewers fans to begin preparing for life without him.