Jonathan Lucroy Could Provide Big Trade Impact as All-Star-Level Catcher

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 26, 2016

Milwaukee Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy reacts after hitting a two-run scoring single during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash/Associated Press

Word is Jonathan Lucroy would welcome a trade to a team that has eyes on winning. All he needs now is a team that's willing to bet he can be a star catcher again, which is hardly the craziest notion.

That this idea requires some faith, though, is reflected in how quiet Lucroy's trade market has been. Adam McCalvy of MLB.com reported during the winter meetings that the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers were open to trading Lucroy, but there have been few reported nibbles on the 29-year-old catcher.

Last week, we found out that this has nothing to do with Lucroy being intent on hiding behind limited no-trade protection. In an interview with Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lucroy said he wouldn't mind being traded to a contender.

"Yeah, absolutely. I want to win," he said. "It's not guaranteed that I'm going to win if I am traded. But I'm going to be a 30-year-old catcher. I can't put numbers on how much longer I'm going to play, but as players we want to win. I don't care about the money; I just want to win. That's the bottom line."

But while Lucroy's words aren't exactly unwelcome for potential suitorsDavid Schoenfield of ESPN.com figures that list includes the Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals—a trade doesn't sound imminent.

Take it from Haudricourt:

Because Lucroy was an All-Star and a National League MVP contender as recently as 2014 and is controllable through 2017 at less than $10 million, you can't blame the Brewers for putting a high price tag on him.

But at the same time, you also can't blame other teams for saying, "Gee, I don't know, man."

Lucroy is heading into the danger zone with his age-30 season due up, and off a rough 2015 season to boot. An early-season toe injury and a late-season concussion limited him to only 103 games, and his OPS fell from .837 in 2014 all the way to just .717. 

And that's not the full extent of the warning signs. As Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus showed recently, Lucroy's once-elite ability to frame strikes is now barely above average. With that being the case, "meh" might be the best word to describe Lucroy's defense.

When looking at recent history, Michael Baumann of Today's Knuckleball noted that the Brewers can demand at least one top-50 prospect in exchange for Lucroy. And given that he plays a position where talent is scarce and he has a cheap contract, the emphasis probably belongs on "at least."

For a guy who may have started a decline in 2015, maybe that sounds like a lot to ask. But though teams have every right to wonder as much, reasons for optimism aren't hard to find.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Generally speaking, teams have a better chance of finding Waldo in a candy cane field than they do of finding an above-average hitter to play catcher. That makes the prospect of Lucroy's offense rebounding arguably the most intriguing possibility of trading for him.

And really, that's not too much to ask of him.

Though Lucroy's 2015 offensive performance looks bad on the whole, one bright side is that his rough start and finish to the season heavily skewed his overall performance. In between Lucroy's toe injury and concussion, there was an 82-game stretch where he hit .277 with a .758 OPS. That may not be up to par with what he did in 2014, but it's way above average for a catcher.

Further, Lucroy's batted-ball profile for the 2015 season backs up the idea that he was mostly his usual self in the batter's box. He continued to hit line drives, use the whole field and generally make solid contact:

Lucroy's Batted-Ball Habits: 2015 vs. 2012-14
SpanLD%To Left%To Center%To Right%Soft%Hard%
2012-1422.235.036.528.514.335.6
201525.931.937.330.914.735.0
FanGraphs

This is not to say Lucroy didn't have real issues at the plate. As David Golebiewski pointed out at Gammons Daily, hard stuff gave him more trouble than it did in 2014. And though Lucroy remained an above-average contact hitter, his strikeout rate did experience a spike. 

Overall, though, Lucroy was more dangerous than his final numbers let on. He was actually a pretty good hitter in 80 percent of the games he was able to play in, and he didn't forget how to sting the ball.

Hence why it's not a surprise to see optimistic projections for Lucroy's 2016 season. The Marcel projections have him bouncing back to hit .279 with a .778 OPS. The Steamer projections aren't as bullish, but they still see a .273 average and .756 OPS.

Matt York/Associated Press

Of course, Lucroy's health will have to cooperate. And on that front, the reality is that you can't be too sure with concussions—particularly when catchers are involved, and especially when said catcher is nearing the wrong side of 30.

But while it may be impossible to disregard any concerns for Lucroy's noggin, he's at least doing his best to downplay the possibility of further damage. He was advised to fortify his head by strengthening his neck, and he's taken the advice to heart.

“We’ve been doing a nice, safe regimen for neck strengthening that will help me be more impact resistant,” Lucroy told Haudricourt. “A lot of studies have shown neck strength helps decrease the severity of concussions by a lot. That’s what I’m aiming for.”  

Relative to his bat and to his health, maybe the biggest question regarding Lucroy's future has to do with his ability to frame strikes. Strike framing makes for a significant portion of a catcher's defensive value, after all, so you can rest assured this is something potential suitors have on their minds.

And this, frankly, is where it's a bit harder to drum up optimism. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs found, what pitch-framing data there is suggests that when a framing decline begins, it tends to be permanent. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

And yet, not all hope is lost. As Sullivan said: "[Lucroy's] not yet old, and he could have a much healthier season. He still knows all the techniques, and there’s some chance the numbers are actually missing something. Maybe, for example, they’re not giving Lucroy enough credit for catching a pretty lousy staff."

This, to be sure, it not a promise that Lucroy can get his framing back on track. But it's a Lloyd Christmas-y way of saying there's a chance, which is certainly better than no chance.

And even if Lucroy's framing stays stuck in decline mode, it will be hard to complain about that as long as his bat and his health behave better than they did in 2015.

Take a look back to even Lucroy's modestly productive 2013 season: His solid hitting and sizable body of work made him worth over three wins above replacement. Only four catchers ended up in that range last year. Star-level catchers are scarce like that, so even a modestly productive Lucroy could be a big asset.

This is not to say Lucroy is a trade steal waiting to happen. The only way that would come true is if he got back to his MVP-caliber form from 2014, which isn't terribly likely. However, a trade need not be a steal in order to be worth it. And if Lucroy can put his rough 2015 behind him, he stands to be just that—worth itif a team pays a heavy price for him in a trade.

For now, prospective suitors at least know that Lucroy is game to leave Milwaukee. All they have to decide is how much they want to get him out of there.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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