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Trade Analysis: Brewers Send Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to Texas

Breaking down the Brewers’ just-in-time blockbuster.

Oakland Athletics v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, a trade for Milwaukee’s most desirable player fell through. Last year we saw the Mets say “on second though, nevermind” to Carlos Gomez after reviewing his medicals. This season it was the player who nixed the deal; Jonathan Lucroy used his no-trade clause to veto a deal that would have sent him to Cleveland after the Indians reportedly wouldn’t guarantee the starting catcher job in 2017 nor would they void his club option for next year.

Milwaukee ended up finding suitable deals to move both players even after their first attempts fell through, and it’s interesting how the situations sort of mirror each other. The original Gomez package would have returned two MLB-ready players in Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores from the Mets before Doug Melvin pivoted to Houston and added Mike Fiers to the deal to bring back back a package of four prospects (Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, and Adrian Houser). Lucroy would have nabbed four prospects (Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen, Yu-Cheng Chang, and Shawn Armstrong) from Cleveland if he hadn’t vetoed the trade, and instead he was packaged with Jeremy Jeffress and sent to Texas for two premium prospects that are in close proximity to the big leagues in Luis Ortiz and Lewis Brinson (along with a player to be named later).

This was, without a doubt, the biggest trade that Slingin’ David Stearns has executed during his brief tenure as the Brewers’ general manager. Not only was Jonathan Lucroy an All-Star performer on a very team-friendly contract, he was a beloved figure among the fans and in the community. His down-to-earth, blue collar style just seemed so distinctly midwestern(though he’s a Florida native), and of course he was very involved in charitable organizations including his work with the Honor Flight program for military veterans.

During his parts of seven seasons in Milwaukee, Lucroy accrued 806 hits, 79 home runs, 157 doubles, and slashed .284/.342/.436 across 3,137 plate appearances covering 805 games. When accounting for his pitch framing using Baseball Prospectus’ WARP calculation, Luc was worth 35.0 wins above replacement during his tenure with the Brewers. If someone can make an argument that Lucroy is not the best catcher in franchise history, I’d be interested to hear it.

Jeremy Jeffress, of course, was no slouch with the Brewers either. His story is that of redemption; Milwaukee’s first round pick in 2006 was dealt as part of the package for Zack Greinke at the end of 2010, but failed to find his footing with the Royals and Blue Jays before being released early in the 2014 season. Jeffress spurned at least one big league offer to sign a minor league deal to rejoin the Brewers’ organization. Since making it back to the big leagues in July of that year, Jeffress has worked to a 2.36 ERA with 127:40 K/BB ratio and 58.7% ground ball rate in 141.1 innings pitched.

Lucroy was deservedly an All-Star in 2016 and posted a .299/.359/.482 slash with 13 home runs in 376 plate appearances. He is owed the balance of a $4 mil salary this season and has a club option for next year for just $5.25 mil. Jeffress perhaps deserved an All-Star berth as well, logging 44.2 innings while posting a 2.22 ERA with 35:11 K/BB ratio. He saved 27 games as Craig Counsell’s closer. A below-average strikeout rate and less more sturdy than outstanding work according to ERA estimators (3.16 FIP, 3.94 DRA) paint Jeffress as more of a “good” reliever than an “elite” one, however. He is earning roughly the league minimum this season and is arbitration eligible for the next three seasons.

So, what did the Brewers get in return for their franchise backstop and closer?

Right handed pitcher Luis Ortiz was Texas’ first round draft pick in 2014, signing for a $1.75 mil bonus. The 20 year old stands at 6’3” and weighs 230 lbs with a thick build that lacks projection. Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs writes that his “stuff is already excellent” in any case. He offers that Ortiz’s plus fastball has visible movement and sits 93-96 MPH from the windup, though it tends to lose a little velocity from the stretch. His slider sits 83-85 MPH and projects as plus, along with a projected above average changeup.

Ortiz has spent this season split between the high-A and AA levels, pitching to a 3.48 ERA across 67.1 innings. MLB Pipeline projects his control as above average while Longenhagen projects it as plus, and he’s demonstrated that it is indeed a strength with a 4.6% walk rate this season. That ability to throw strikes should help give him an MLB floor. He misses plenty of bats, too, as exhibited by his 22.4% strikeout rate.

The agreement for his ceiling seems to be around a potential number two or three starting pitcher. Given that Ortiz is already at the AA level he may not be that far away from contributing to the big league team, though he has had a couple minor injury issues and his 67.1 innings this season are already a season-high as a professional. Ortiz is ranked as MLB Pipeline’s 65th overall prospect and slots in at number five in the Brewers’ system. He’s been assigned to AA Biloxi.

Lewis Brinson is another former first round pick, drafted in 2012 and signed to a $1.625 mil bonus. The 6’3” and 195 lb outfielder broke out last season, posting a .332/.403/.601 slash with 20 home runs and 18 stolen bases across 455 plate appearances. As Longenhagen notes, however, Brinson has had some issues staying healthy including a shoulder injury this season. That has likely contributed to a less-than-stellar .237/.280/.431 slash in AA this year, though he has still mashed 11 home runs and stolen 10 bases. A decline in walk rate (9.6% to 5.2%) this year does raise a small concern with me.

Fangraphs’ write-up notes that if he can stay healthy, Brinson has the potential to hit 30 home runs. MLB Pipeline calls him a potential 30 homer-30 steal player. He receives average or better future grades on all five tools, with an average to above average hit tool to go along with plus grades for power, speed, and arm. Baseball Prospectus described his ability to patrol center field as “always-stellar” and Longenhagen adds that his power projections and defensive profile are “enough to create big league value.” Brinson ranks 21st among prospects according to MLB Pipeline and received the number two ranking in the Brewers’ system. He’ll begin his tenure in AAA Colorado Springs, just a step away from the big leagues.

The addition of the player to be named later adds an unknown quantity to this trade, making tough to grade. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen it suggested that the club may be scouting 24 year old John Fasola, a righty reliever who owns a 2.94 ERA in 125.2 minor league innings since being drafted in 2014. He boasts an outstanding 155:30 K/BB ratio and throws a 96 MPH fastball along with a slider. That’s not an overly-impressive addition to the trade, but he’s pitching in AAA and would be another near-MLB level asset. But it we won’t know for sure who will be coming back until after the season.

As it stands, however, there aren’t any clear winners in my view. This trade saw two mid-term assets, a premium catcher and a late-inning reliever, get exchanged for two premium long-term assets that could provide big league fruit in the not-so-distant future. David Stearns may have sacrificed quantity in this deal by seeking such high-quality prospects in return, but there is no doubt that he added two extremely desirable future assets to what may arguably now be the top minor league system in all of baseball.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference