The week spanning March 21st through the 27th must certainly have been a strange one in the career of Jonathan Lucroy. He had just gone through a winter that saw the Texas Rangers, a team that had sought out his services, a team that he had chosen to go to instead of Cleveland, pick up his team-friendly $5.25 million contract. Much of the talk during Spring Training revolved around whether Jon Daniels would issue an extension to the 31-year old catcher. From out of nowhere, seemingly, the tables turned on that Tuesday.
The Rangers, instead, issued an extension to the backup catcher – the older, far less-heralded Robinson Chirinos. Sure, it was just for an extra year for a couple million less than Lucroy’s 2017 deal, but for a team looking for a frontline catcher to bridge the gap until the next potential franchise backstop in Jose Trevino, the move seemed strange. In summary, Chirinos was given an extension through 2018 for $2.25 million with a 2019 option for $2.375 million. It’s not that Chirinos, who had served as the Rangers’ secondary catcher through four, injury-plagued years, hadn’t deserved the extension. Offensively, showing flashes of power, and defensively developing an excellent rapport with his pitching staff, Chirinos has become something of an unsung hero for this Rangers’ era.
But where did that leave Lucroy?
Six days later, reports surfaced that all of the ballyhooed extension talks for Lucroy had been “tabled” indefinitely. Perhaps Texas was planning on saving its money for ace Yu Darvish. Perhaps they felt comfortable with just one catcher extension in the Spring. Perhaps they would just take care of matters after the 2017 season. Perhaps…they had something in mind for their depleted farm system.
On the positive side, if Lucroy was everything the Rangers wanted him to be, there would be a strong chance that Texas would be in the thick of a pennant race with an All-Star caliber catcher anchoring a cobbled together rotation. If Texas, say, found themselves where they are now, perpetually at the .500 mark, falling farther from contention in the AL West and grasping at straws that could net a one-game playoff chance – well, the Rangers would have an interesting trade chip on their hands.
Lucroy, thus far, has not been the catcher that Texas has hoped he would be. On top of a painfully slow start to the season with the bat, the former Milwaukee Brewer has seen the bottom fall out from his defensive acumen. The bat has picked up, although nowhere near the level baseball had seen in previous years, but the defensive drought Lucroy finds himself in is troubling.
Perhaps most notable, and with the most profound effect on the aforementioned cobbled-together rotation, are the issues he has had in making his pitchers look better. Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer delved into Lucroy’s framing issues.
“…for the first time, his called-strike rate on pitches in the bottom third of the zone — which used to be his bread and butter — is lower than the league average. To make matters worse, his performance on pitches in the upper third is also at an all-time low. The more he has to move, the worse he does relative to the league…Now, his shoulders lean, his glove shakes, and his head dips, distracting the umpire from the presentation of the pitch.”
I may be crafting my own narrative here, but could Lucroy have been thrown off his mental game by having to enter a contract year unexpectedly? If so, how healthy is it that he stays on a team that is potentially out of it with a closing window, knowing that he has been as big a part of the slowly sinking ship as anybody else?
If it sounds like I’m lambasting Jonathan Lucroy, I’m not meaning to. Rather, I’m trying to show that the Texas Rangers could not possibly be worse off by trying to go with a potential 2018 backstop preview for the rest of this season. Currently, Brett Nicholas, most likely to be called up as the next catcher, has played in eight fewer games in Round Rock than Lucroy. To that end, Nicholas is raking with a .310/.351/.462 slash with 10-15 homer potential. Defensively, Nicholas is posting similar Framing Numbers to Lucroy, but is slightly better.
Perhaps more telling is that Lucroy in 2017 has been worth Zero Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. It might not necessarily be in the Rangers’ best interests to trade Lucroy away, but they could make that decision and not send the message to the rest of the team or the fanbase that they’re giving up on the season. In other words, at this point and with what Lucroy’s contributing to the team, what do they have to lose by exploring trade possibilities?
Lucroy could bounce back, at least offensively. As Lindbergh stated in the article above, it’s difficult for a catcher to regain all of the defensive prowess once possessed. If Lucroy can get a reboot somewhere and play for a team with more positive eyes on them (that is, playoff-bound or with recent playoff success), perhaps he regains that confidence he had and has a better chance at attaining another big free agent contract.
Which teams could Texas start talking with to offload Lucroy’s services? Perhaps it’s Colorado, surprising contenders in the NL West, dealing with a recently-returning-from-injury Tony Wolters, needing some offensive power from the backstop position, and housing 2015 Ranger, Ian Desmond. Maybe it’s the Cubs, potentially desperate for any kind of kick start and recently finding themselves in need of a veteran catcher. Perhaps Tampa Bay would engage in discussions with Texas, having just gotten The Buffalo Wilson Ramos back from knee surgery and perhaps needing a steadier secondary backstop option.
What would Lucroy net you? At this point, it might be a very high hope to ask for a high-leverage bullpen arm. On top of the less than stellar performance, Lucroy’s a rental. Lucroy may not net a top ten prospect anymore, like he did last year in the Milwaukee/Texas trade, but top twenty may not be out of the realm of possibility. Lucroy’s worth on the trade market is versatile, as he could be a piece used to acquire someone for right now or someone to replenish the farm system.
Either way, it’s probably time to start considering a more immediate future without Jonathan Lucroy.
Should the Rangers consider trading away Lucroy regardless of contender status? Share your thoughts with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.