After yet another loss last night to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers have continued their franchise worst start to a woeful 3-15 to begin the 2015 season. The Brewers’ are failing in all assets of the game; they sport a league worst run differential, rank last with just 62 wRC+, rank tied for last with a .262 wOBA. Their pitching staff has posted an NL worst 4.78 ERA, while Milwaukee’s players have committed 17 errors thus far, second most in the NL.
At this point, there seems to be little hope of a playoff run for the 2015 season. The Brewers’ two best players (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy) are on the DL, and just about every one of the Brewers’ veteran players look to have given back some of their skill to father time in the early goings of the year. In an appearance on “Brewers 360” earlier this week, Brewers’ GM broached the subject of a possible rebuild. “There’s a point where you may have to reset, retool,” Melvin said several times during the interview, and also expressed some frustration about having been “caught in the middle” during recent seasons. “We’re not able to go out in the big free agent market like some of the other teams have done; we’ve had to trade a lot of younger players to stay in contention and to win in the 80-game range.”
While I certainly didn’t see a rebuild as a possibility prior to the season, I also could have never envisioned this type of horrendous start. It’s become clear to me that a rebuild is now not only a possibility; it seems almost inevitable. The Brewers do have a solid start on what could be a three-year process; promising talents like Orlando Arcia, Tyrone Taylor, and Clint Coulter are all off to strong starts this year and should be ready to make an impact at the major league level by 2018. Other high ceiling talents like Kodi Medieros, Monte Harrison, and Jake Gatewood might not be too far behind them.
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These prospects, while promising, won’t be enough by themselves to push the Brewers towards their next era of competitive baseball. The Brewers have several veteran assets that they will likely try and sell off as the season progresses, but the likes of the aging Kyle Lohse and Aramis Ramirez won’t net great returns. In order to truly jump start their rebuilding process, the Milwaukee Brewers need to trade Jonathan Lucroy.
What the Brewers have in their catcher is arguably one of the most valuable players in all of baseball. Lucroy plays a premium position behind the plate, providing both outstanding defense (ranked second by Fangraphs in total defensive value in 2014) while providing stellar offensive potential. Over the last two seasons, Lucroy has posted a .291/.352/.460 slash in and even 300 games, slugging 31 home runs among his 117 extra base hits. Lucroy led the league in doubles last season with 53, finished third in the NL with a 6.2 fWAR, and garnered the fourth most MVP votes.
While Lucroy’s skill-set makes him a valuable commodity, his contract is what makes him the Brewers’ most valuable asset. Lucroy signed a 5 year, $11 mil extension that looked team friendly back in 2012, but now after Lucroy’s offensive break out, is an absolute bargain. Lucroy will earn $3 mil this year, $4 mil next season, and has a team option for $5.25 mil for 2017. In a free market where wins are valued at around $6 mil, Lucroy provides more bang for the buck than just about anyone else in all of baseball.
While some in Brewers’ circles will want to hold on to the Brewers’ new “face of the franchise,” the fact is that the benefit of keeping Lucroy no where near outweighs the potential gains of trading him. With Lucroy controllable through only 2017, it’s unlikely that the team would be competitive again before his contract is up. After playing for several seasons with a below market value contract, it’s unlikely that Luc would offer the Brewers any sort of discount on a second contract extension. Lucroy will also be 31 by the time his current deal expires.
Mega-contracts to players in their 30s are becoming all too common across baseball these days, despite how negatively they tend to work out for the ballclubs that sign them. Brewers fans need only to look out to Ryan Braun in right field to see an example of a $100 mil plus investment gone wrong. While Lucroy may be a tremendous player now, there is no telling how his body will continue to hold up while playing baseball’s most demanding position. The Brewers need to be focused on 2018 and beyond, at which point paying a 32 year old catcher tens of millions of dollars won’t be a wise investment.
So, what could Jonathan Lucroy net the Brewers on the trade market? Well, if the Braves can get two top-10 prospects and a young pitcher from the Astros for catcher-turned-outfielder Evan Gattis, you can expect the Brewers’ to far exceed that with their asking price. Someone of Lucroy’s talent and contract status could fetch a top-10 in all of baseball type talent. A team like the catching starved Dodgers, for example. could center a deal around top prospect SS Corey Seager and a couple of pitching prospects, including someone like Grant Holmes or Chris Anderson. A trade like this combined with the continued progression of the Brewers’ own prospects would provide a huge boost to the Brewers’ minor league system. Though Lucroy has started off slowly this season and is currently on the disabled list, this should do little to hurt his value. A freak broken toe injury from a batted ball doesn’t change the fact that Lucroy has caught the second most innings of any catcher in baseball since 2013, and a .189 BABIP is hardly sustainable over a full season.
“Milwaukee in the Middle” has carried on for the last four years since the Brewers’ 2011 playoff run, and it hasn’t yielded anything more than a couple of 80-something win seasons frustrated fans. While you’d be hard pressed to find someone to think the Brewers’ would be THIS bad so far in 2015, it’s hard to argue that the time has come for the team to rebuild towards its next era of success. That rebuild process will get jump started as soon as the team moves its superstar catcher, Jonathan Lucroy. The Brewers have a capable (and cost certain) catcher in Martin Maldonado to employ during the rebuild, and Lucroy’s contract will be up before Milwaukee is ready to contend again. A trade of Lucroy would net some serious talent for the Brewers minor league system, and save the Brewers from the temptation to shell out another mega-contract to an over-30 player. He’s a fan-favorite and a great player, but the time has come for the Brewers’ to start fielding offers on Jonathan Lucroy.