Brewers Smart to Turn Down Jonathan Lucroy Extension

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The Milwaukee Brewers currently possess one of the most valuable assets in Major League Baseball in the form of Jonathan Lucroy. From humble beginnings as a third round pick in 2007, Lucroy became the Brewers’ everyday catcher as a 24 year old in 2010. Since then, he has put together a strong career both behind the dish and at the plate: in 661 MLB games, Lucroy has hit .281/.339/.428 with 62 home runs and has been rated as 50.2 runs better than average defensively by Fangraphs over the course of his career. Since his offensive breakout in 2012, Lucroy has been even more impressive: he has an .807 OPS over the past four seasons, sporting a terrific .352 wOBA and 121 wRC+. Last season was Lucroy’s best: an .837 OPS with a league leading 53 doubles among 68 extra base hits, 7.94 BWARP, a second place finish in the Gold Glove award for catchers and a fourth place finish for the NL MVP. All of this, while playing on what may be the most team friendly contract in baseball: a 5 year, $11 mil extension (with a $5.25 mil club option that is almost assured to be exercised) signed prior to the 2011 season that doesn’t allow Lucroy to test free agency for up to another two seasons after 2015.

Now 29, Lucroy was one of several Brewers to get off to a slow start to the season. After just six hits in his first 51 plate appearances, Lucroy found himself on the DL with a broken toe for over a month while the Brewers plunged into the NL Central cellar. Milwaukee’s awful start has led to plenty of talk in regards to a possible rebuild, with Lucroy himself at the central of several recent trade rumors. This has caused somewhat of a split among the fanbase: is Lucroy a long-term piece that the Brewers should try and extend and build a team around, or should Milwaukee try and move their All-Star catcher for a potential franchise-changing return of prospects?

Lucroy himself has been asked about both of these possibilities lately. In a couple recent interviews on Milwaukee’s 105.7 FM the Fan, Lucroy has expressed a strong desire to play for a winning franchise, whether that is in Milwaukee or elsewhere. He has expressed displeasure with the way this season has gone, and even went as far as to say that Milwaukee hasn’t made an impact first-round pick since 2005 – despite currently being teammates with both Jeremy Jeffress (Milwaukee’s first round pick in 2006) and Taylor Jungmann (first round pick in 2011), who are putting together strong seasons at the major league level. Perhaps some of his frustrations stem in part from the fact that Lucroy apparently approached Milwaukee with an extension offer earlier this year, and was turned back away by the organization. Lucroy later told MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy that the deal his camp proposed would have made him a Brewer “for the rest of (his) career” sometime in January, but was informed during Spring Training that the organization was not interested in negotiating a deal at that point in time.

Since coming back from the DL in June, Luc has put together a solid, if not unspectacular, line of .271/.333/.380 in 184 plate appearances. While he may not be showing the extra base power he has in the past, he is still an above average hitter and has been the rated as the 11th most valuable defensive catcher in the NL so far this season (in terms of runs above average), despite missing roughly six weeks while recovering from injury. Yes, he is one of the most valuable players in the game RIGHT NOW, but the Milwaukee Brewers were very wise to avoid negotiating an extension with their “face of the franchise.”

When Lucroy’s deal is up, he will be 31 years old and have played the better part of eight major league seasons. He’s already caught over 5,000 innings in his career, and catchers with that much mileage typically start wearing down after hitting the age of 30. The most important part of Lucroy’s value as a player is in his outstanding defense behind the plate, and when you combine that with his above average offense compared to his fellow backstops (the average MLB catcher has an 86 wRC+ this season) you have yourself an All-Star. We have seen Lucroy start playing more first base in the last few seasons in order to help slow the wear and tear on his body, where he becomes a much less valuable player. Lucroy has been rated as a below average defender in terms of UZR at first base over his career, and his career 110 wRC+ looks a lot less impressive when you consider that the average first baseman has a 111 wRC+ this season. If, or when, Lucroy’s body no longer allows him to play behind the plate, then he goes from being an All-Star caliber catcher to a below average first baseman, both offensively and defensively.

There is the matter of what a potential contract for Jonathan would look like, as well. For perspective, let’s take a look at the contracts given to All-Star level catchers over the past couple years. Russell Martin hit the open market last season at age 31 after two seasons in Pittsburgh that saw him accrue 11.13 BWARP and was rewarded with a five year, $82 mil contract from the Blue Jays. The year prior to that, Brian McCann signed a 5 year, $85 mil deal (with a vesting option for year six) with the Yankees starting with his age 30 season. These deals would put a second Lucroy extension somewhere in the range of a five year, $80-90 mil deal covering his ages 32-36 seasons. I’m sorry, but $18 mil per season is too much to be paying an aging catcher in a market like Milwaukee, and it would be even worse paying that much for below average first base production. The Brewers are already paying Ryan Braun close to $20 mil per season through 2020, and spending somewhere in the range of $35-40 mil on two over-32 players doesn’t allow the Brewers the payroll and roster flexibility needed in a small market.

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Do I like having Jonathan Lucroy around? You bet. Right now he’s one of the best players in the game and the face of the Brewers. However, overpaying a player to be a “lifetime Brewer” is a mistake that Milwaukee cannot make again. While we don’t know what the specific terms in the proposed extension were, any deal paying a player big money for their age 32+ seasons is a deal that the team needs to avoid. Milwaukee has already been burned by the Braun mega-extension, and if the Brewers need even more warning about how badly a contract extension for their catcher could go, just take a look at Joe Mauer‘s career arc from top-flite catcher to below average first baseman after he signed his “lifetime deal” with Minnesota.

Jonathan Lucroy is a fan favorite and one of the most valuable all around players in baseball right now. But when push comes to shove, a team like the Brewers cannot value a player’s “marketability” more than their contributions on the field.

Next: Inside the MLB Draft and Minor League Life With Gentry Fortuno

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