As the MLB trade deadline quickly approaches, there have been numerous rumors involving the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy. The strongest ones involve a potential trade to the Texas Rangers or the Cleveland Indians.
Both teams make sense as a Lucroy landing spot for a handful of reasons. First, each club leads their respective division and should be considered legitimate World Series contenders. They also would each have the necessary talent to offer back to the Brewers.
Texas has the deeper talent pool and lauded farm system, but Cleveland has a few highly-touted kids that would do the trick if the Indians were willing to part with them.
Both teams also have lackluster offensive catchers – and that may be putting it mildly.
Indians’ catchers collectively reside at the bottom of MLB with the bats, dead last in OBP (.211) and OPS (.511) – that’s an OPS an abysmal 60 points below the next worst group of catchers. They also own the league’s lowest numbers in advanced stats like weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created (wRC).
And this was mostly with starter Yan Gomes healthy. He’s going to be missing a month or two with a separated shoulder. Gomes is currently batting .165 with a .198 OBP and 69 strikeouts (compared to just 9 walks).
The Rangers haven’t been quite as bad as a group, although none of their backstops have done much at the plate consistently. Of the three who have played in at least 30 games, no one has an OBP above .292 and they’ve combined to hit .233 with 75 punch outs.
Robinson Chirinos has hit well since the break, but he entered the 2nd half of the season with a .197 average. His two home runs on Thursday helped boost his OPS to .833 on the year. However, that’s terribly deceiving since he has fewer than 100 plate appearances.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s All-Star catcher owns a .361 wOBA and an .854 OPS, both good for 2nd at his position. His improved power thus far has been a nice addition, posting a .492 slugging percentage thanks to 12 HR, just 6 shy of his career best.
So it’s clear to see the immediate offensive value Lucroy would bring to either club at a premier position. Both teams are in the bottom half of overall OPS+ in the American League, so despite their success, a cliff could be looming.
The next question would be, how would Lucroy impact each team defensively?
From a pure skills standpoint, Lucroy is one of the best at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. That increases his stock, benefiting any club that would swing a deal.
He doesn’t have the greatest arm, but he has quick feet and gets rid of the ball well, helping him to a 38% caught stealing rate this year. That ranks 8th in MLB (minimum 30 games) and is better than Texas and Cleveland have done.
All this may lead one to wonder what the Indians and Rangers are waiting for. Sure, Brewers’ GM David Stearns is asking for the moon right now (which he should), so that could be giving the teams pause for concern. They may be hoping that the price drops a touch as the deadline gets closer as well.
But still, whoever gets Lucroy will gain an edge over the other team in their race to the AL pennant.
Here’s where the hidden factor could come into play when determining who may actually make a deal. The problem is this factor is something that’s difficult to measure. Will changing catchers in the middle of a season hurt the pitching staff?
We hear constantly how catchers must know their hurlers inside and out, even getting credit for “handling a pitching staff.” They work tirelessly throughout Spring Training to ensure the relationship creates the ultimate performance over the course of the season.
Perhaps this is seen more so with a young staff, but the chemistry and understanding between the battery mates does seem to be an essential part.
Of course, that’s not something even advanced metrics can put a number on as it is mental or psychological in nature. In theory, there could just as easily be a positive impact as a negative one, depending on the circumstances of each team and the makeup of the players involved.
Overall, the Indians have better pitching. It’s really not that close, either. Cleveland’s hurlers lead the AL in ERA at 3.62, while Texas owns a 4.53 staff ERA, 13th out of 15 clubs. Or take the FIP statistic (fielding independent pitching) and you’ll see the Indians with the 2nd-best number in the AL (3.86) with the Rangers 2nd-worst in MLB (4.85).
Cleveland may look at this and believe another catcher could disrupt the chemistry of their high-quality pitching staff, creating more problems than benefit in the long run. This could be causing the Indians to drag their feet or feel the asking price is too high in terms of prospects, simply due to the greater risk.
Texas, however, may see this as a “what have we got to lose” situation. Lucroy’s bat and defensive skills are obvious improvements, and maybe he can lift up the struggling pitching. There’s no guarantee, but they can’t get much worse, so his value may even be elevated some more.
While there are always a number of factors teams will consider before swapping players – especially some of their better assets – sometimes it’s one of the considerations further down the list that makes or breaks a potential deal.
With a player like Lucroy, the well-defined positives are easy to spot. In the end, it’s this hidden factor that will ultimately swing the pendulum one way or the other…or hold it still until the offseason.