Jonathan Lucroy has become an integral member of the Milwaukee Brewers. From humble beginnings as a third round draft pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2007, Luc has worked his way up to become arguably one of the top catchers in all of Major League Baseball. Lucroy has become a respected veteran who is considered a leader inside the Brewers' clubhouse. His blue collar style has also won over the majority of fans around Wisconsin, where many still hold the 'Midwestern values' of modesty and an "honest day's work for an honest day's pay" to close to their hearts. In fact. Jonathan is considered by many to be the "face of the franchise."
And there is no time better than the present for the Brewers to trade him.
Unless one has become willfully ignorant over the last nine months or so, it's common knowledge that the Brewers are in the beginning stages of a thorough rebuilding process. 58% of the players on the club's currently full 40 man roster were not there just one calendar year ago and in that time we have seen trades of no less than 10 players from the big league roster in exchange for prospects. The Brewers have been open about the fact that they will be "taking a step back" in the near future in the hopes of building towards a competitive, sustainable pipeline in the vision of new GM Slingin' David Stearns.
It's a consensus that Jonathan Lucroy is the most valuable trade chip that Stearns has left in his arsenal, and there's reportedly been no shortage of interest in the All-Star backstop. According to a report from Ken Rosenthal over the weekend, the Brewers "remain involved in ongoing trade conversations" regarding their franchise player. Rosenthal goes on to list the Diamondbacks, Angels, Rays, and Rangers as speculative fits for Luc, and here at BCB we recently took a look at the Nationals as a potential suitor.
With Matt Wieters off the free agent market, Lucroy is the most attractive catcher available either by trade or on the open market. He got off to an awful start and dealt with injuries last season (including a concussion in September), but from June 1st through the end of the year he posted a 105 wRC+ and 29 extra-base hits, both numbers that are in line with Luc's career averages as well as well-above average offensive totals for a backstop. He's also a highly-regarded defender, of course, and is often praised for his blocking and pitch-framing abilities.
Beyond his value on the field, Lucroy also comes at a very affordable price. The Brewers shrewdly locked their catcher up with a pre-arbitration extension back in 2011, and he can be controlled for the next two seasons for the paltry sum of just $9.25 mil total.
Trading Lucroy has become a hot-button issue with the fanbase, but to me it's only logical way to continue to build up the farm system for long-term success. According to Lucroy himself he approached the front office prior to last season about a long-term extension that would have made him a Brewer for life, only to be rebuffed at that time. He's since expressed a sincere desire on more than one occassion to compete for a championship, and winning doesn't appear like something the Brewers figure to do too much of during 2016-17 before Lucroy's contract runs out.
Signing Lucroy to a second long-term extension wouldn't be very prudent for the small-market Brewers, either. He is set to enter the free agent market prior to his age-32 season, which is perhaps why former GM Doug Melvin turned back Lucroy's overtures in 2015. The club is still bound to Ryan Braun's $105 mil deal through 2020 and it's tough to imagine a David Stearns-run ball club playing upwards of $35-40 mil annually to two players heading towards their decline years. A Lucroy extension would look even worse if he's eventually forced to move to first full-time a la Joe Mauer, where Luc immediately becomes a below-average first baseman both offensively and defensively.
Not only does it make the most sense to trade Lucroy rather than misguidedly try and extend his contract, but it's also important that Slingin' Stearns deals him before the 2016 season begins. It's crucial for a catcher to get the opportunity to become familiar with his pitching staff during spring training, making in-season trades of starting backstops exceedingly rare. In fact as Rosenthal notes in his post, there has not been a catcher who has started 50+ games dealt in July since 2012. That happened to be the Cubs' Geovanny Soto, who was sent to Texas in exchange for RHP Jake Brigham. In-season trades of actual "star" catchers are even more difficult to come by, with Rosenthal listing Victor Martinez (2009), Paul LoDuca (2004), Charles Johnson (2000), and Mike Piazza (1998) as the only four to change hands during the last 30 seasons.
So if the Brewers don't trade Lucroy prior to the start of the new season, it's a near certainty that they won't move him until after the 2016 season. That would leave him with just one year of control remaining, and as we've seen time and time again, acquiring teams place significant emphasis on the amount of time they can control a player when considering what to offer in return. Even on the heels of a "down" season, unless Lucroy has another top-5 MVP caliber type season like he did in 2014 it's hard to imagine his value being significantly higher with one year of control remaining than it is right now with two years.
There's also the chance that Lucroy's production could further diminish, as well. His excellent 2014 not withstanding, his power has been trending downwards for the last few seasons. He's caught more innings (4762.1) than all but five catchers since 2011, the type of use that can wear down even the most durable backstop after awhile. It's easy enough to get around why his overall bottom-line results weren't up to snuff in 2015, but if Jon gets off to slow start again in 2016 or suffers another injury, then it will only continue to torpedo his trade value. As is stands it's probably fair to say that most clubs see Lucroy as about a 3-4 WAR catcher, which easily puts him among the top five backstops around the league. This is down of course from the exceptional 6.1 fWAR campaign that he put up in 2014, but it's unreasonable to expect Lucroy to repeat that production again next year in order to try and "salvage" his trade value.
With no designs on competing in the near-term and a backup in Martin Maldonado who is arguably better defensively and with the pitching staff, the time for the Brewers to trade Jonathan Lucroy is now. Holding on to Luc into the 2016 season would be a significant risk for the Brewers' rebuilding process and could cost them the chance to add a package with at least one premium prospect to their system via trade. That premium player could be the club's next star first baseman, third baseman, or perhaps even catcher. But unless David Stearns settles on a deal for Jonathan Lucroy sooner rather than later, the Brewers may miss the boat on extracting any kind of significant value from him altogether.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs