An unexpected storyline has emerged over the last few weeks of the offseason, as the Royals and Brewers have agreed to long-term contracts with their catchers. The latter deal, which will pay Jonathan Lucroy either $11 million or $13 million (if he attains Super Two status) over five years and includes a club option for the 2017 season, was made official on Tuesday.
What’s interesting about the deals given to Lucroy and Salvador Perez is that neither projects to be a star-level player. The Rays’ pact with Matt Moore and the Pirates’ hitch with Andrew McCutchen were examples of teams preferring cost certainty—and the chance to strike significant bargains with potentially elite players—at the expense of some additional risk for the club. The Lucroy and Perez extensions carry less financial risk for the Brewers and Royals, respectively, but the upside is also considerably smaller.
Focusing on the Lucroy deal, there are two notable reasons why it may prove to be a shrewd decision by general manager Doug Melvin. The 26-year-old hit .265/.313/.391 last season, an output that on the surface seems easily replaceable. But the aggregate triple slash for all big-league catchers in 2011 was just .244/.312/.388, meaning that Lucroy was actually slightly better than the average backstop. Lucroy’s minor-league track record (.379 OBP over five seasons) suggests that he may eventually improve his walk rate, and he is generally considered a solid defensive catcher, so his 2011 value of 1.4 WARP might be considered a floor for what he’ll produce annually over the next five years.
PECOTA foresees a .258/.313/.378 triple slash from Lucroy and expects him to replicate that 1.4 WARP output in 2012. Even at that level of performance, he would justify the $11-13 million investment. If he proves to be a late bloomer, that improvement would be icing on the cake.
The second factor to consider is that virtually all of the National League’s contenders have long-term answers behind the plate. In the NL Central, the Cardinals are set with Yadier Molina and the Reds have top prospect Devin Mesoraco waiting in the wings behind Ryan Hanigan. Outside the division, Buster Posey and Miguel Montero are key cogs on the West’s best teams, while Brian McCann, Carlos Ruiz, Wilson Ramos, and John Buck hold down the fort in the East. All are above-average to star-level players, and—with the exception of Montero—all of them can be retained under their current contracts through at least the 2013 season.
Stability at the catcher position, particularly at a reasonable cost, is valuable to contending teams for two reasons. The first is that even average catchers can be tough to find in free agency; the declining, 35-year-old Ramon Hernandez and the replacement-level Rod Barajas led this year’s crop. The second is that pitchers develop a rapport with their catchers, and turnover at the position can disrupt their routines.
Even if he remains a 1.4-win player, then, Lucroy could be considered a significant asset for the Brewers. By locking him in at an AAV of just over $2 million, Melvin has given himself payroll flexibility at other positions, which he’ll need to rebuild the pitching staff if Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum depart in free agency next winter.