The Detroit Tigers find themselves in a tricky position leading up to the MLB trade deadline, sitting six games back in the division and four games behind the second wild card spot. Though they face an uphill battle to make the playoffs, they still are in the thick of contention leading up to the deadline. Arguments could be made for the team to take a variety of actions, including selling off major pieces as in 2015 or holding with the current roster as it stands.
However, for the Tigers to seriously contend down the stretch they likely need to make a significant move or two. Only a few rumors have mentioned the Tigers so far, but that does not mean that discussions are not being held behind closed doors. As the Detroit front office surveys the available players around the league, one name that should at the top of the list is Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy.
If the Tigers want to make an upgrade on offense, there are very few areas where they can do so. The entire infield is locked up, as is the designated hitter spot, and the return of J.D. Martinez will create a complete outfield as well. The only position that could really use a change is at catcher, and there is certainly room for improvement there.
A sizable upgrade
Offensively, the Tigers’ catchers have provided very little value in 2016. The duo of James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is hitting .192/.275/.344 this season and ranks 27th among all teams with 63 wRC+. Neither player has been very dependable, with both hitting right around .200. Saltalamacchia does have 10 home runs, but his 37.9 percent strikeout rate has limited his value.
Meanwhile, Lucroy continues to be one of the best catchers in baseball. He is hitting .301/.362/.491 this season with 13 homers and 122 wRC+. This is nothing new for Lucroy, who ranks fourth in wRC+ and second in fWAR among all catchers since 2012. Twice he has been an NL All-Star, including his achievement earlier this month.
Lucroy is consistently mentioned as a quality pitch framer. Per Baseball Prospectus, he posted double-digit framing runs every season from 2010 to 2014 before slowing down a bit the past two years. His track record is vastly superior to those of McCann and Saltalamacchia, catchers who routinely feature negative framing run totals.
Worth the cost?
Though the Brewers are out of the hunt this year, they have no need to trade Lucroy and could rightfully demand a steep price for him. Teams like the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets have already been linked to Lucroy, and they hold an advantage over the Tigers with more intriguing farm systems.
But even if the Tigers could put together a sufficient trade package, would it be worth it? The Tigers’ prospect depth is far from abundant even after last year’s restocking, and depleting the system for Lucroy might not be the best decision. Likewise, trading away someone like Daniel Norris or Matt Boyd could cause problems payroll and rotation problems down the line.
Additionally, because of the Tigers’ limited trade chips, adding Lucroy would likely eliminate the ability to sign a top starting pitcher. As weak as the team has been at catcher, that hole is easier to cover than the issues at the back of the rotation. The Tigers could be better off focusing their energy and resources on rotation help instead of a big bat.
Pick up the phone
No matter what angle is taken, Lucroy is levels above either of the Tigers’ current catchers. He could be hit anywhere in the middle of the batting order and he can be trusted to play almost every day. He also is experienced behind the plate and could boost the productivity of the Tigers’ pitchers with his pitch-framing and game-calling abilities.
The price to acquire him would surely be high, but the cost might be worth it for a player such as Lucroy. Few catchers are as productive as he is on both sides of the ball, and he could be under team control through 2017. While the Tigers should be wise with the limited resources they have, they should not shy away from making this type of move. The opportunity to greatly improve the catcher’s spot in average, power, and defense is too good to not pursue.