While not looking to spend too much money this offseason, the Detroit Tigers are faced with a vacancy at catcher after declining to tender a contract to James McCann, who has since moved elsewhere in the AL Central. While there are in-house options currently available in the forms of Grayson Greiner — the current starter, according to manager Ron Gardenhire — and John Hicks, the Tigers are likely looking to add a veteran clubhouse presence to help mentor Greiner, a young pitching staff, and potentially even top catching prospect Jake Rogers.
Among those available to step into this role is Jonathan Lucroy.
There’s some potential here
From 2010 until 2017, Lucroy spent six-and-a-half seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, including two All-Star years, before being dealt to the Texas Rangers and, again, to the Colorado Rockies. His production remained solid throughout this time, as he hit .281/.343/.433 in nearly 1,000 games played. He provided both a solid walk rate and some extra base pop, including a major league high 53 doubles in 2014, a season in which he finished fourth in National League MVP voting.
Lucroy’s 2018 season, spent with the Oakland Athletics, saw him take some steps back. He hit .241/.291/.325 (a 71 OPS+) with just four home runs in 415 at-bats. His plate vision remained, however, with strikeout numbers sitting in a respectable range (65 in 454 plate appearances, a 14.3 percent strikeout rate).
Lucroy’s 2019 Steamer projection plays a bit more favorably, with an expected .257/.322/.388 line, though his power numbers are projected to remain lower. They never have been particularly astronomical, to be fair, as he only has a career isolated power (ISO) of .144.
On the flip side...
While a potential upgrade over the current options with his bat, Lucroy is not without his shortcomings at the dish. Historically a viable threat to regularly reach base (career .281 average and .343 on-base percentage from 2010 to 2017), this was not the case in 2018, which saw career-lows with a .241 average and .291 OBP, along with a 6.4 percent walk rate. He also saw career-low marks in weighted runs created (wRC, 37) and weighted runs above average (wRAA, -16.2).
There’s also a question of whether Lucroy would provide much of a boost, if any, on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s true that Lucroy was once a more than serviceable defensive catcher, to put it lightly. One could argue that he was even a Gold Glove-caliber defender when taking pitch framing numbers into account. He posted 24 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2014, but he has seen regression in his abilities behind the plate in every season following, dropping to DRS values of 3, 4, -15, and -11 from 2015 through 2018, respectively. His pitch framing has also taken a turn for the worse. In 7,161 framing chances in 2018, Lucroy was worth -3.7 framing runs, which ranked 99th out of 117 catchers across both the American and National Leagues. This is quite a fall from grace, considering he twice finished first in baseball in framing runs (in 2011 and 2013) and was consistently among the top framers in baseball early in his career.
Is it worth it for the Tigers?
If there are other, better options available (i.e. Matt Wieters, Wilson Ramos, Martin Maldonado), then Lucroy ideally should not be the Tigers’ man in this search. There’s possibility for a bounce back year at the plate after what some might describe as an anomaly for him last season. But he wasn’t great at the dish in 2017, and coupled with his defensive regression, it’s difficult to bank on him suddenly returning to form in 2019. He would provide a solid presence in the locker room, and might get a little better defensively, but little else.
The Tigers will also have competition. The A’s have expressed interest in bringing Lucroy back for the 2019 season, but rumors of a salary gap in negotiations — not to mention Oakland’s addition of free agent backstop Chris Hermann — have done little to bring the two parties together again.
Should things come down to it, a one-year with Lucroy worth around $5 million (what the A’s have already offered) wouldn’t be outrageous, should he manage to make a slight return to form on both sides of the ball.