From 2012 through 2016, Jonathan Lucroy was one of the best catchers in baseball. His 19 WAR during that time was second only to Buster Posey, and that figure likely underrates Lucroy, as his framing numbers made him even more valuable; Baseball Prospectus’ catcher defensive metrics have him being worth 85.5 framing runs over that span, though his value declined precipitously beginning in 2015. Since leaving the Brewers (and turning 30 years old), Lucroy has not been the same player on offense or defense. In 2017, he put up an 81 wRC+ and had to settle for a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the A’s. Last year, Lucroy got worse at the plate, posting a 70 wRC+, and now he has had to settle for a one-year deal worth $3.35 million with the Angels.
In their deal, the Angels are paying Lucroy like a player who put up 1.1 WAR in 2017 and followed it with 0.6 WAR last season. The projections still hold out a bit more hope that the 4.6 WAR season from 2016, and the very good seasons preceding it, are not a too-distant memory. Below is a the breakdown of Lucroy in his 20s and 30s, and his projection for next season.
|Lucroy in his 20s||2996||.284||.342||.436||111|
|Lucroy in his 30s||1244||.261||.327||.381||86|
|2019 Depth Chart Proj||384||.254||.318||.381||94|
Is there a reason for the optimism in the projections? Last year, Jeff Sullivan, who recapped Lucroy’s apparent framing demise, noted that Lucroy appeared to have sacrificed some power for contact, but simply ended up hitting a lot more ground balls. Last season, he went back to his typical batted ball approach, with fly ball and ground ball rates approaching his career norms. He also went back to striking out at a rate much closer to his career norms. Unfortunately, his walk rate went down and his power numbers were even worse, with a sub-.100 ISO. His Statcast numbers aren’t much help and his xWOBA hasn’t been too terribly out of line with his hitting numbers. At a time when pitchers are throwing more and more breaking and offspeed pitches, Lucroy has seen more fastballs the past two years. He’s also seeing more pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers are telling Lucroy with their pitches that he has gotten worse, and he has yet to respond.
Perhaps the Angels can resurrect something of the star Lucroy was in Milwaukee, but even his modest projections seem a little optimistic for a player who has gotten worse in his 30s at a position that takes a heavy toll. A year ago, the Angels won the offseason by bringing back Justin Upton, winning the Shohei Ohtani derby, trading for Ian Kinsler, and adding Zack Cozart. Upton and Kinsler were solid, and Ohtani was the AL Rookie of the Year, but he and Cozart missed time due to injury, and the rotation of injury-gambles didn’t stay healthy; the team ended up around .500 instead of in the playoff race.
So far this offseason, the Angels have focused on the pitching staff, adding Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill, with Lucroy and Justin Bour being the biggest additions on the position player side. The team’s current Opening Day payroll projects for around $165 million, roughly even with each of the three previous seasons. Given the static nature of the payroll against rising revenues across baseball, as well as a good local television contract and attendance that exceeds three million fans every year, the Angels should have more money to spend should they choose to use it to improve before their two best players in Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons reach free agency after the 2020 season.
And how they might improve? They could still add more starting pitching or attempt to bolster the bullpen. In the outfield, Kole Calhoun projects as average; he just finished a replacement-level season, though his second half had him looking more like his usual, competent self than his awful first half. David Fletcher is the least known name in the infield, but he had a solid debut in half a season last year, and projects as average again this season. The team could limit Albert Pujols’ playing time, though it is not clear if Bour makes that a realistic option. But if the Angels do look to the free agent market to improve, and they don’t feel like bidding on Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, oddly the easiest position to upgrade is probably the position where they just added a free agent.
Yasmani Grandal is projected for 3.6 WAR next season, and would represent a significant upgrade over Lucroy. It’s not clear whether Lucroy was presented with that possibility when he signed so the addition might not be realistic, but it isn’t really clear where Grandal’s market is right now, either. This is where the depth chart projections currently have the catcher position by team.
Grandal’s current projection is the same as that of J.T. Realmuto. The team that signs Grandal would slot into that second spot behind Buster Posey and the Giants. Unfortunately for Grandal, there aren’t many clear fits for his services. The Mets used to be lower on the board, but they signed Wilson Ramos. The Nationals traded for Yan Gomez andsigned Kurt Suzuki. The Braves replaced Suzuki with Brian McCann. The Rays traded for Mike Zunino. And while not prohibitive, the Astros added Robinson Chirinos; the Angels have obviously been the focus of this piece.
A lot of contenders could still use Grandal’s services, but Cleveland has been cutting costs and already traded away an inexpensive catcher. The Phillies, Padres, and Diamondbacks have top catching prospects at or near the big leagues, while the Dodgers have two of the best prospects in baseball not too far away. The Rangers aren’t trying to compete. The Red Sox make a lot of sense, but the team is already really good and signing Grandal would put them in the 72.5% tax range, meaning a $16 million contract would cost the team roughly $28 million; at Winter Meetings, Dave Dombrowski told the Associated Press that his preference would be to drop below the highest surtax but that “it’s not a mandate.” The Rockies would also make a lot of sense. The Astros probably still do despite the addition of Chirinos, and the Brewers could get in the mix, like they did when they signed Lorenzo Cain a year ago. The White Sox are probably a dark horse, particularly if they don’t get Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. If Grandal can’t find the good multi-year deal his play deserves, a one-year reunion with the Dodgers might make some sense as well.
In Jonathan Lucroy, the Angels brought in a player who might make them a little better in 2019 while ignoring the player who could make a more significant difference. There are still some decent fits out there for Grandal, the Angels still included, but his market isn’t as big as it was at the beginning of the winter as teams have routinely opted for the cheaper route. Grandal does not come without risks given his age and position, and he might end up with the big contract everyone expected after Harper and Machado are gone, but he also might find himself squeezed just as a number of free agents did a year ago.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.