The Reality of Trading Lucroy

For most of the winter and carrying over into spring and summer, Brewer's fans have been hearing that Jonathan Lucroy remains a possible trade candidate in Milwaukee's future rebuilding plans. The Brewers are not going to make the playoffs in 2016 and they may struggle to be competitive in 2017 as well, depending on who stays and who goes. Luc has rediscovered his swing and is producing as good or better than any other catcher playing in the majors right now. Every offensive stat you look at, Lucroy comes in right around the top among qualified catchers. Normally, a player in Lucroy's position would be a lock to switch teams, especially considering his comments this winter about wanting to compete for a championship. But the reality is, Jonathan Lucroy might not be dealt.

First of all, Lucroy is one of the most popular Brewers and initial fan reaction would be negative. Many hardcore fans understand the needs of small market clubs and how they need to rebuild in order to make an eventual post season run a few years down the line. We've seen popular and productive players such as Richie Sexson, Jeromy Burnitz, Greg Vaughn and Jeff Cirillo moved in deals and casual fan reaction has generally been outrage. Vaughn's trade, in particular, created a huge fan backlash. No matter what another team offers the Brewers, GM David Stearns will have to lobby Mark Attanasio and convince him that the players and prospects coming back are worth losing their most popular and marketable player and that the fan base will eventually be okay with it.

Next, problem, is the hole it creates in their 25 man roster in the short term. Jacob Nottingham is the best organizational prospect and it's not even a sure bet for him to stick at catcher. Based on how the Brewers progress top prospects, Sept of 2017 is the most likely target for Nottingham's arrival with an entire off-season prior to 2018 to learn the pitching staff in order before the keys to the castle get handed over. Lucroy is an elite MLB catcher and there is a huge offensive drop off between him and current backup (and only potential replacement) Martin Maldanado. To put in into perspective, Lucroy has a legitimate argument going that he is the best offensive catcher in baseball. He's second or third in MLB in most statistics among catchers. Maldanado, albeit in limited opportunities, is somehow slugging LESS than his on-base percentage for 2016, which is a truly rare and dubious feat and his OPS is a dreadful .628 for his career. The gulf in class offensively is simply massive, even at a position where offense isn't always the main priority. The loss of Lucroy would be felt not only offensively, but also with their young pitching staff. Jimmy Nelson, Junior Guerra and especially Zach Davies have benefited from Luc's game calling and pitch framing expertise. And while Maldanado offers more in terms of shutting down the opposition's running game due to his hose of a right arm, there's a reason (he can't hit) that he's been a backup catcher his entire MLB career.

The final, and possibly most important, reason that Lucroy may in fact finish out 2016 in a Brewers uniform is that it is incredibly rare for starting catchers to change teams mid-season and find success. One notable exception to that is Charles Johnson back in 2000 who finished with a career high .304 average, 31 HRs and 91 RBI while swapping the Orioles for the White Sox at the trade deadline. The Brewers trading Lucroy, on the surface, presents a lot of the same pitfalls as to when the Dodgers dealt Mike Piazza to Florida back in May of '98 (which ironically included Johnson going the other way). LA gave up their best offensive, most popular player and clubhouse leader in Piazza for some overpriced and league average talent pieces. The deal was a disaster for LA, not only for what they gave up but for what they got back, and Florida flipped Piazza to the Mets just a few days later. Piazza was not nearly as valuable on the defensive side of things as Lucroy and the Brewers would surely be looking for younger, cheaper prospects or team-controllable assets rather than the veteran jumble that LA received, but the results could easily be the same for the Crew. Milwaukee might only get lottery tickets for the heart and soul of their team. That may not be a trade you want to make, even if you risk losing him for nothing after '17. Piazza went on to help lead the Mets to multiple playoff appearances after '98, including a World Series birth in 2000., but LA struggled until just recently to field a team capable of competing for a championship. They have benefited from ownership change and have delved deep into free agency now that they are a financial power, something that isn't realistic for Milwaukee. The Brewers would be gutting the core of their offense AND defense by moving on from Lucroy, but they might not be the only ones hesitant to make a deal mid-season.

Teams do not like to acquire a starting catcher in July and have them learn their pitching staff in the middle of the season. It rarely happens. There's a reason pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training before everyone else. Pitchers need to trust catchers and catchers need to know their pitchers. Not just their repertoire's and what they like to throw and when, but how to get pitchers through a game when they don't have their best stuff. The offensive upside needs to far outweigh the potential impact on a team's chemistry and pitching staff. Piazza was an offensive force and its hard to compare him and Lucroy. As good as Luc is, Piazza may just be the best offensive catcher of all time. He hit .351 in the second half to finish 4th in the NL in batting and STILL couldn't lead NY to the playoffs in '98. And that trade happened in May, allowing Piazza a much longer adjustment period with NY's veteran pitching staff. But how about that Johnson trade in 2000? Well, CJ ended up posting career highs and leading Chicago to a first round playoff exit at the hands of Seattle. But Baltimore barely saw any return on investment by acquiring Miguel Felix, Juan Figeroa, Brook Fordyce and Jason Lakman for a great defensive catcher experiencing his best offensive season. Milwaukee could easily suffer either of those two fates if they trade their prized backstop. They could struggle to replace his offensive and defensive contributions short term and long term, risk alienating a large chunk of their fanbase who has already lost fan favorites like CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy and Zach Grienke all in the primes of their careers.

Here it is folks, plain and simple: it just might make more sense for the rebuilding Brewers to keep Lucroy for all of 2016, test the trade market in the winter and if no one offers a substantial haul, back up the truck and see if Luc's willing to take a 4 or 5 year deal to be the veteran presence during the entirety of the rebuilding process, similar to the path the organization took with Geoff Jenkins. Luc can help put butts in the seats, promote the team when they struggle to be competitive, tutor the younger players on what it takes to be a big leaguer and keep the pressure off of them if they struggle initially in their careers. Maybe in this scenario he won't sign and leaves in FA after 2017. In that case, they at least get his presence for the next year and a half. But maybe that's a risk the Brewers should be willing to take. Sure, they could end up trading Lucroy for a player that becomes the Brewers next stud. There's always a chance you get a great, young player and the trade goes down in history as one of the Brew Crew's best. But that chance is actually really small, as it is with all MLB trades involving prospects. So far, Stearns and Co. have shown to be shrewd and savvy during their tenure in Milwaukee and that may be part of the reason Luc is still catching for the club. Stearns is a smart guy, who knows the value of a player is more than just what he represents on paper. So if the Brewer's continue on with Lucroy as their starting catcher, even as he approaches free agency, we should appreciate that sometimes a player's value transcends the numbers they put up in the box score. And we should all keep in mind that when you rebuild, you have to leave some of your foundation in tact.