Jonathan Lucroy's return, likely next week, will give the Brewers a logjam of talent at catcher.
By RYAN KARTJEFS Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE — It had been the start of what felt like a dream season for
Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Two years of hard work behind the plate learning the major league game had paid off. With a contract extension in hand, Lucroy was on his way to proving that he was one of baseball's best young catchers, batting an impressive .345 with 30 RBI in 43 games.
But as fate took a nasty turn and a suitcase took a nasty fall in his hotel room May 27, breaking his throwing hand, Lucroy's breakout season was put on hold.
As taxing of a situation as it has been for Lucroy, who was ready to truly break onto the national scene, it was expected to be particularly damaging to the Brewers, who — at 19-28 when Lucroy was hurt — needed all the firepower they could get.
Since that injury, however, the Brewers are 25-19. They're still fourth in the NL Central, 7.5 games behind first-place Cincinnati. But considering where they could have been — with one of their best hitters absent from the lineup — Brewers manager Ron Roenicke will take it.
That's mostly due to the subsequent breakout season of backup catcher — well, No. 3 catcher — Martin Maldonado, a relative unknown who had earned a reputation for terrific defense in the minor leagues. Since he was called up to take Lucroy's roster spot, it has been Maldonado's offense that has been one of the biggest boosts to what had been a flagging offense.
Now, after it appeared the Brewers would be counting the days until Lucroy's return, Milwaukee has reason to be patient. But with Lucroy set to come back next week — likely for the July 26 beginning of the team's series with Washington — not only will the Brewers have a logjam at the position, but they also will have another offensive contributor in a lineup that has been quite potent in the last month.
"Four or five years ago, we didn't have hardly anyone (at catcher)," Lucroy said. "It's one of those things where it's a good problem to have."
That backup at backstop will keep the team from rushing Lucroy back, Roenicke said. The Brewers won't take any chances with the player they still believe to be their franchise catcher.
"I've told (Lucroy), I don't want him coming back here telling me that he's ready to go and his last four at-bats have just been brutal," Roenicke said. "When he comes back, I want him to contribute. If he's not contributing, I'll catch Maldonado. He's been doing a great job. … We're not in desperate need for Luc to come back. Do I want Luc back as soon as he can? Yes. But I want him good when he comes back."
In Lucroy's stead, not only did Maldonado fit in nicely with his offensive contributions on paper, but the Brewers' young catcher earned a reputation similar to the one that Lucroy did earlier in the season — one for his clutch hitting. At one point, four straight Maldonado home runs had come with two outs and given the Brewers the lead. It was a nice substitution, to say the least, for Lucroy, who boasted the best average with runners in scoring position in the major leagues before getting hurt.
Lucroy did his best to help Maldonado along in his process of adjusting to the big leagues. He let the new major leaguer borrow his giant black scouting binder that sits in his locker, full of information about hitters all over the league. He aided Maldonado as much as needed and had only good things to say about the rookie's breakout in his absence.
"He's definitely stepped up and gotten the job done," Lucroy said. "I've been in his shoes before. It's tough being a young catcher thrown into things because of an injury. I've been there. I know how tough it is. … He hasn't needed much help; he's done a really good job."
A good enough job, some believe, to warrant keeping him on the major league roster, which would give the Brewers three available catchers — an unusual look for any baseball team. Roenicke even said he's not afraid to use a three-catcher rotation, albeit not for very long. He has nixed any chance that Maldonado, Lucroy, or backup catcher George Kottaras could switch positions.
Maldonado said, whatever the decision, he's just pleased he got a chance to prove himself at the major league level.
"I don't worry about that stuff," said Maldonado, who is hitting .273 with five home runs and 18 RBI in 132 at-bats. "The only thing to do is to go out there and perform and do the best I can. That's a decision they have to make when they feel like it. I'm really happy I got the opportunity to be up here and play every day."
And after sidestepping questions about a plan for the catchers for more than a week, Roenicke has now admitted that a plan is in place for Lucroy's arrival. He wouldn't share it with reporters, of course, but the conversation has indeed been had about what to do with Lucroy — and more important, Maldonado.
But like Lucroy said and Roenicke reaffirmed, it's an awfully good problem to have, considering the overarching sense of pessimism just two months ago, when Lucroy's freak accident seemed to indicate the Brewers' 2012 season was doomed to fall short. Thanks in part to Maldonado, that hasn't been the case.
Still, the return of one of Milwaukee's most talented hitters could be the boost the Brewers need to regain necessary ground in the NL Central race, before it's too late.
"Before (Lucroy) went down, he was certainly one of the best hitters in baseball," Roenicke said. "Any time you get a player like that back again — even though Maldonado has been great — it's still nice having Luc back."