There Are No Villains in the Jonathan Lucroy Story

Perhaps it’s fitting that, in a trade season without any big name stars, the biggest story that may emerge before the deadline is a deal that didn’t happen. As August noted over on InstaGraphs, the Indians and Brewers appeared to have struck a deal for Jonathan Lucroy last night, but this morning, Lucroy’s representatives informed the Brewers that he wouldn’t be waiving his no-trade clause in order to facilitate a trade, effectively killing the deal.

Whenever a player refuses to go along with an agreed-to trade, there’s always a backlash. If you’re a Brewers fan, you’re probably frustrated that a guy who has no future with the franchise prevented the team from landing a package of quality prospects, especially after making public comments the last few months about wanting to play for a contender. If you’re an Indians fan, you’re probably frustrated that maybe the best player on the market just refused to join your team, and instead of having a loaded roster headed into October, the team still has a big hole behind the plate. And if you’re August Fagerstrom, you’re frustrated that you had to throw away a nearly-finished article on the Indians decision to push all-in, and lose a nifty cooking analogy in the process.

So there’s a lot of frustration out there, since Lucroy’s decision prevented a lot of people from getting what they wanted. But this is one of those times when it’s definitely worth remembering that ballplayers are people, and when it comes to making decisions about his life, Jonathan Lucroy doesn’t really owe us anything.

If we look at this from his perspective, Lucroy signed a below-market extension with the Brewers back in the spring of 2012 because he wanted to be part of what it looked like the Brewers were building. They were coming off a 96-win season, and Lucroy was part of a young core that included Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, and Yovani Gallardo. As part of the negotiations, Lucroy asked for a limited no-trade clause, allowing him to stipulate up to eight teams per season that he can block trades to. The Brewers agreed to include that clause in the deal, which helped them get him signed at a significant discount.

For the last five years, Lucroy has given the Brewers mostly excellent production, even as the team crumbled around him. The deal has worked out tremendously well for Milwaukee, who didn’t have to give him significant raises even as he established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball, and now that they’re in rebuilding mode, the low-cost salaries increased his trade value, allowing the team to negotiate a better prospect package in return for him. Lucroy has more than lived up to his end of the contract.

Now, the Brewers struck a deal with the Indians, one of the teams on Lucroy’s no-trade list. After years of having his contract work against him financially, this allowed Lucroy to have his contract work in his favor, giving him the ability to decide if he wanted to go to Cleveland or not. And apparently something in the conversation with Cleveland’s front office decided to make him uncomfortable with the fit.

According to a report from Bob Nightengale, the issue surrounded how the team planned to use him in 2017, the final year of his contract.

Lucroy, who had the Indians on his non-trade list, vetoed the trade Sunday morning when the Indians would not only provide financial incentives for him to accept the deal, but also would not guarantee that he would be their everyday catcher in 2017, a person with direct knowledge of the trade told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

Yet, since they also have injured Yan Gomes under contract through 2019, the Indians plans to reinstall Gomes as their everyday catcher next year. Lucroy would have been the backup catcher, playing first base and DH, in essence, killing his free agent value.

With all due respect to Nightengale, that report is essentially just not believable. Lucroy is one of the best catchers in baseball, offering value both as a hitter and a fielder, and there’s no reason to think the Indians would actually squander a highly-valued asset by using him as a part-time player, or by shifting him to a position that is easily filled by someone who doesn’t have Lucroy’s defensive chops. It simply wouldn’t make any sense for the Indians to give up the kind of talent required to make this deal if that was the plan. More credibly, there’s this report from Ken Rosenthal.

The “made no promises” idea is much easier to understand, especially if the Indians were looking to use Lucroy the same way the A’s used Jeff Samardzija; pick up a player with an extra year of control before free agency, use him for the remainder of the current season, and then flip him over the winter in order to recoup some of the lost value surrendered in acquiring him. If the Indians still believe in Gomes, this strategy would allow them to upgrade for the current season without having to discard a guy they might still like long-term, and the market for Lucroy this winter might not be that much worse than it is now, allowing the team to get 75-80% of the acquisition cost back when they traded him again.

For Cleveland, this idea makes plenty of sense, but it’s also reasonable for Lucroy to not really want to go along with that plan. Catchers spend a lot of time developing relationships with the pitchers on their staff, and perhaps he simply would prefer to only have to do that once in the next few months, not twice, or even three times if the Indians then traded him to another team that saw him as a one-year rental, rather than a team that would want to keep him around long-term. Given that teams like the Mets and Rangers have been linked to the Lucroy rumors, perhaps he’s hoping that by vetoing this particular deal, he can still end up with a contender who wouldn’t look to trade him this winter.

That would explain why the reported asking price for him to waive his no-trade clause to go to Cleveland was so unrealistic.

This was, of course, never going to happen. The Indians were paying a prospect package that was based on getting Lucroy for 2016 and 2017, and they weren’t going to give up this kind of talent for a guy who could head into free agency this winter. If Lucroy sensed that the Indians might have been planning to trade him this winter — and with 22 teams not on his no-trade list, he’d likely not be in control of where he ended up — then asking for them to tear up his 2017 option would be the only way to prevent that. While many no-trade clauses are waived in favor of some extra cash or other financial incentives, if Lucroy’s concern was indeed that the Indians were going to ship him off again this winter, a little bit of money wouldn’t address that issue.

And that would fit with these quotes that he gave after using his no-trade to block the deal.

Of course, this is all speculation. Maybe Lucroy just really hates Cleveland? He wouldn’t be the first player. It’s possible that he just really doesn’t want to play for the Indians for some reason.

But given that he’s openly talked about wanting to play for a contender, and that the Indians definitely fit that bill, it seems likely that Gomes’ continuing presence in the organization made Lucroy question his long-term future there, and perhaps he simply doesn’t want to be a hired gun. For a guy who has spent his entire career with one team, preferring not to bounce around the league for the next few years seems like a perfectly reasonable desire.

And again, Lucroy has earned the right to make this decision, regardless of why he did it. The Brewers bought down his salary in exchange for giving him some power over his future, and he’s simply using a tool he paid for. The Brewers took a calculated risk in making a deal with a team on his no-trade list, and risks don’t always pay off. By getting this done a day ahead of time, the team still has time to put together an alternate deal, and trade Lucroy to a team he’ll agree to go to, or one that he has no say over.

And I don’t have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the Indians either. While we obviously don’t know what was said or specifically requested, the team may have lost out on the best catcher available because they wouldn’t guarantee him that they’d keep him at catcher for next year as well, even though he’s clearly better than their internal options, and they’ll be contenders in 2017 as well. Yeah, maybe landing Lucroy means you have to relegate Gomes to a reserve role for next year, but it’s not like Gomes has hit well enough to earn a 120 start-per-year job lately, and that seems like a small price to pay to make the team better at a time when a significant upgrade could have a big impact on the franchise’s chances of winning a title.

But just like Lucroy has a right to use his no-trade clause, the Indians have the right to decide who they play and where, and they aren’t obligated to give that power to a player in order to get him to join their team. Maybe they should have, but they know more about their pitchers’ relationship with Gomes than we do, and it’s possible that Gomes is a bigger part of the reason why the team has developed a good young rotation than we currently know.

So, even with the frustrating result, I don’t really find that anyone did anything wrong here. The Indians and Brewers made a trade contingent on Lucroy agreeing to be traded, and the Indians weren’t able to convince him that Cleveland was the right fit for him. Lucroy had paid for the right to decide if he wanted to go to Cleveland, and given what he knows at this point, he chose not to. So now the Brewers will try to trade him somewhere else, and the Indians will find other ways to upgrade their roster.

Maybe Lucroy didn’t make the decision that would have been best for Cleveland fans or Milwaukee fans, or August Fagerstrom. But his job is to make the best decision for Jonathan Lucroy and his own family, and I’m not going to get mad at him for making a self-interested decision. Most of us have the right to choose where to work; baseball players shouldn’t be turned into villains for simply making that same choice.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Mike NMN
6 years ago

Good analysis. Lucroy gave more than ample value to Milwaukee over the term of his contract, and part of that value was their ability to swap him and his low cost option for 2017. All they had to do was pick a team that wasn’t on his no trade list. They didn’t–they wanted to maximize their return. The Indians have no duty to give Lucroy more, Milwaukee can still trade him if they want to, and Lucroy had no duty to sacrifice something. Everyone has done the things they agreed to, and not done more. It shouldn’t be an issue.

Baron Samedi
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike NMN

What sort of compound interest are you getting on your soul?