Even though the Astros just won their first World Series, that doesn’t mean the team will take it easy in the offseason.
Every team tinkers with their roster in the offseason. It’s just a fact of life in today’s baseball. The Astros are no different. If they didn’t, well, I would be disappointed.
The common theme for the Astros entering the offseason was the pitching staff. Specifically, the bullpen and the need for a quality left-handed reliever on the roster. Sorry, Tony Sipp.
However, Houston will likely look around the market for upgrades at various positions. As such, another quality starting pitcher isn’t a crazy idea. Neither is another corner outfielder with a decent bat. How about another catcher? That mak…say what?!
That’s, um, rather interesting. This is the rumor equivalent of me saying “I don’t know what to do with my hands in this unusual situation.” I guess I can see a fit here in Houston for Jonathan Lucroy. In theory, this is a partnership which could work out.
I am not even sure that Lucroy is needed in Houston. As a baseball team, you should possess the innate desire to improve whenever possible. But, still, I’m not sure this would be a good move for Houston. Or Lucroy for that matter. Is he even an improvement?
Regardless of my confusion, there is a logjam at catcher for Houston in this moment of time.
Specifically the Astros’ wonder twin catchers, Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. McCann remains under contract through next season for $17 million with a vesting option for 2019. Of course, the actual salary that the Astros will pay him is $11.5 million. Thank you, Yankees. Gattis will be a free-agent following next season, and he will likely make more than his $5.2 million salaries in 2017 once arbitration takes place. It’s still a logjam, but perhaps a temporary one? I’d be surprised if either McCann or Gattis are with the club beyond 2019.
Now, this isn’t the first time that Lucroy has been connected to the Astros. He was a popular rumor during the 2016 season leading up to the trade deadline. Obviously, Houston’s rumored interest never advanced past that stage. In fact, Lucroy was nearly a Cleveland Indian before that deal fell apart due to him invoking his no-trade clause.
And one could argue Lucroy’s professional career has been a bleak reality since that fateful day.
Following his veto of the trade to Cleveland, Lucroy eventually found himself as a Texas Ranger by the deadline. At first glance, it appeared Texas was able to acquire one of the top catchers in baseball. Lucroy, to his credit, was posting high WAR-to-dollar figures throughout his early career. He was also quite solid with the bat. From 2010 through 2014 with the Milwaukee Brewers, Lucroy posted a 111 OPS+ in 2,346 plate appearances. Then there were the 59 home runs, 120 doubles, and a .343 on-base percentage. Oh, he also, somehow, had 13 triples in this time span! All in all, quite good numbers from a catcher.
Combine his solid bat along with his defensive skill set, and you saw a very valuable major league catcher.
Part of Lucroy’s high value was attributed to his team-friendly contract, which paid him $9.5 million over the last two seasons. And despite a precarious drop in his framing runs metric to 1.1 in 2015, his 14.9 framing ran in 2014 was the ninth-best in baseball in that particular season. He even led the league a 29 framing runs metric in 2013.
Overall, Lucroy’s 2015 season as a hitter, 96 OPS+, and as a catcher was a let down compared to past seasons. And I’m not sure what his mid-season framing runs metric was when the Rangers acquired him in 2016, but Lucroy’s reputation as a good catcher, especially regarding framing, was still intact. He would even slightly rebound with 4.0 framing runs in 2016. Plus, he posted a 120 OPS+ in his half-season with Milwaukee before the trade to Texas. Combine all the factors, and you see why the Rangers surrendered top talent to acquire Lucroy’s high-end, yet cheap production. He would post a 128 OPs+ in his half-season or so with Texas that season.
This period of improvement was for naught as it was then followed by a rough 2017 season.
Lucroy, for all intents and purposes, was one of the worst catchers in baseball this past season. Out of all catchers who appeared in 100 games in 2017, he ranked 18th regarding OPS+ with 86. For context, there were only 25 catchers that appeared in 100 games this most recent season. Regarding framing runs, Lucroy cratered to a -17.7 framing runs value. That’s terrible if you believe in the framing runs metric. And out of all qualified catchers, he had the worst DRS score of -4 runs. So, Lucroy was a below-average hitter and a below-average catcher.
This downturn in performance along with their overall mediocre season led the Rangers to trade Lucroy to the Colorado Rockies. In his defense, though, Lucroy was a much better hitter in Colorado, 115 OPS+, than he was with Texas, 66 OPS+, so that’s something positive. In fact, I think you can argue that Lucroy should take a one-year pillow contract with the Rockies to rebuild value in 2018. He is only 31-years old and competent catchers are hard to come by.
Alas, I believe the Astros should pass on Lucroy. His reputation as a terrific defensive catcher has basically evaporated into thin air over the past few seasons. Outside of a brief offensive somewhat resurgence with the Rockies, it’s hard to have confidence in him as a bat-first catcher. And there is no guarantee Lucroy would provide better value than McCann or Gattis at this point in his career. This is more likely to be a “kicking-the-tires” scenario than an active pursuit.
However, the Astros’ front office led by Jeff Luhnow is much more baseball and analytic savvy than I am. Maybe they seem something in Lucroy that the general public doesn’t. Either way, Houston has probably earned the benefit of the doubt.
**Statistics and information courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs**