It’s complicated: Brewers in tough spot with possible trade of Lucroy

Jonathan Lucroy could be the next veteran player shipped out of Milwaukee.

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It’s easy to say now that the Reds should have traded some players sooner. It’s been clear for a long time they’re headed for a rebuild, yet they hung on to Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier, and both of them lost value. Chapman is currently unmovable, and Frazier just drew an underwhelming return. Of course, the Reds couldn’t have predicted precisely what would happen, but they should have predicted neither Chapman nor Frazier would lift his stock higher than it was.

It’s also easy to say now that the Brewers should have traded Jonathan Lucroy sooner. This was a bit less obvious: In 2014, the Brewers went into September tied for the division lead. You can’t blame them for trying again in 2015, and a couple years back, Lucroy might’ve been the best catcher in baseball. He doesn’t look like the best catcher in baseball anymore. And the Brewers and Reds are basically in the same position.

The Reds traded Frazier because they’re far off, and Frazier’s almost 30, with two more years of team control. He’s more valuable to somebody else. Now the Brewers are thinking about trading Lucroy, because they’re far off, and Lucroy’s almost 30, with two more years of team control. He’d also be more valuable to somebody else. Unfortunately, this gets awfully complicated. Because of Lucroy’s position, health and performance, his value is down, but volatile. Yet the Brewers might be feeling a sense of urgency.

To quickly review why Lucroy has value: As noted, he’s not that far separated from having arguably been the game’s best catcher. He was a solidly above-average hitter with power and contact skills, and in 2014 he started 133 games behind the plate. Lucroy has also been strong in the field, excellent statistically as a pitch-receiver. Based on the numbers we have, Lucroy has long been able to steal extra strikes for his pitching staff, and every extra strike is worth a fraction of a run. Lastly, Lucroy has an obscenely team-friendly contract. Over the next two years, he’ll make less than $10 million combined, meaning he’ll get less than John Axford. At that money, there’s not a team in baseball that wouldn’t be able to afford him.

However, concerns have piled up. Last year was Lucroy’s worst at the plate since 2011. He missed time to injuries both early and late, and the later issue was a concussion. Lucroy returned after to play a few games, but he didn’t catch, meaning he hasn’t caught since sustaining the concussion in the first place. Concussions are known to be mysterious, and they can be a real problem for backstops, when there’s risk of recurrence. And even before the concussion, Lucroy didn’t look as good as he had before.

So there’s uncertainty. There’s uncertainty with every player, but Lucroy has an extra helping. It’s not inconceivable he could get back to being one of the best, with health and relaxation. It’s also not inconceivable he could just be finished as an above-average player. Maybe he’ll have problems catching. The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle, but the error bars are huge. As the Brewers think about selling Lucroy, they’re going to want to evaluate him around his best. Other teams, though, won’t want to pay an elite-player cost for someone with these question marks. It’s not an easy start to negotiations.

For a recent example of a somewhat similar case, consider Miguel Montero. Montero, like Lucroy, rated well as a pitch-receiver. Here’s an offensive comparison, using wRC+, which measures offensive performance against league average. (100 = average, >100 = above-average)

Montero didn’t bounce all the way back. Now, Lucroy is better than Montero at most things. Montero is sort of a poor man’s version. But Montero wound up getting flipped to the Cubs for a low price, because his value didn’t meaningfully rebound. This is one risk of the Brewers holding on to Lucroy to let him re-establish himself. They don’t have to trade him now, but he might not rebound as much as they want.

Ages 26-28

Montero: 117 wRC+

Lucroy: 127

Age 29

Montero: 81 wRC+

Lucroy: 93

Age 30

Montero: 90 wRC+

Lucroy: ?

A year ago, the Phillies held on to Cole Hamels. They went into the year figuring they could sell Hamels for a ton at the deadline. Eventually, that’s what they did, but the Brewers’ situation isn’t the same. For one thing, there’s not much use in holding on to Lucroy for the full upcoming season because then Lucroy would have just one year of control left, and that wouldn’t fetch very much. And then there’s a different matter: Around trade-deadline time, there’s always demand for starting pitchers like Hamels. How often do you see demand for starting catchers?

It’s uncommon. It’s not unheard of for a contending team to add a catcher midseason, but it’s not the preferred course. Catchers develop complex relationships with all the members of a pitching staff, and ideally those relationships begin to form in spring training. Even more ideally, the relationships date back a few years. Teams aren’t shy about bringing in catchers during the winter, but when the season’s underway, you just don’t see many impact backstops moving around. Mike Piazza moved in 1998. Charles Johnson moved in 2000. Victor Martinez moved in 2009, but he was kind of a bat-first catcher who also played another position. There are a few other examples, but it’s still infrequent. Midseason, the market for catchers is nothing like the market for starters or relievers. So the Brewers couldn’t automatically count on flipping a potentially rejuvenated Lucroy for a haul.

That’s why I used the word "urgency" above. I don’t know how much the Brewers are feeling it, but there’s real risk in keeping Lucroy into the season. Of course, there’s also a real risk of selling him low if they were to sell him now. There’s no easy way out of this, if the Brewers want to maximize the trade return. What they’d love is for another team to knock them over, but that just isn’t going to happen as long as there are the question marks.

HOT STOVE LEAGUE

There are teams out there that would be interested. The Rangers have been linked to Lucroy, and the Nationals would see the appeal. You have to think the Astros would want in, and maybe even the Mariners would get involved, if they were willing to have Chris Iannetta kind of upset at them.

There’s a market for Lucroy, today. The problem is reaching an agreement. If you’re another team, you see Lucroy as an intriguing risk. If you’re the Brewers, you badly want to sell Lucroy as a member of the positional elite. Based on what I heard in Nashville, the Brewers so far have been unrealistic. Their ask might as well have been the Marlins’ ask for Jose Fernandez. The Brewers have to come down from that, unless they’re comfortable going into the year with Lucroy catching. And Lucroy, of course, is a good catcher to have, but there are risks to this course, as far as the rebuild is concerned. There might never be a better time to sell. You can’t get too hung up on where Lucroy’s value was last December.

I don’t envy the Brewers for this one. There’s just no trading Lucroy right now for what they want. So either they need to adjust what they want, or they need to hope a market develops in July. I mean, when the worst-case scenario is that you just keep Lucroy throughout, that’s not so bad, from a product-on-the-field perspective. The team’s entertainment value is always one factor. But this is an organization in need of more long-term talent if it wants to win again soon. Lucroy can bring some. Heaven knows exactly how much.