The Pittsburgh Pirates need to weigh the cost and benefits of trading for Jonathan Lucroy.
The Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in an unexpected situation
When the Pittsburgh Pirates lost Elias Diaz to elbow surgery at the end of spring training, their depth at the catcher position took a big hit, but with two very capable veteran catchers in Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, it wasn’t a cause for concern immediately.
When the Pirates lost Francisco Cervelli for an estimated two months with a broken hand, at least some people started to view it as an extension of the team’s misfortunes this season. The idea of Chris Stewart at the plate as the everyday catcher for an extended period was admittedly unappealing. Unfortunately, the Pirates didn’t have to worry about that scenario for long. After Stewart’s injury, the Pirates have turned to the duo of Erik Kratz and Jacob Stallings, neither of which is capable of being an everyday catcher.
If the Pirates’ front office still holds on to any hope of defying all odds and capturing a wild card spot, they will need to find a true everyday catcher soon to manage a struggling pitching staff likely to get significantly younger before Cervelli returns, which brings up the case for and against trading for Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
Case against Lucroy
Addressing the most obvious reason first, the depth, Stewart (2018) and Cervelli (2019) are under team control for at least two more seasons. Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire could provide ample depth as soon as next season, both are under team control for up to six seasons at the major league level. Essentially, the problem is the Pirates have no long-term need for an elite catcher.
The Pirates would also have to consider both the short and long term costs of trading for Lucroy. In the short-term, they inherit a pro-rated portion of the $4 million owed to Lucroy this season. They would also have to accept possibly trading away important depth at the Triple-A level or further deplete depth at the Double-A level. In the long-term, the Pirates would have three MLB-capable catchers. Someone, likely Stewart, would be the odd man out.
The news surfacing this week of Francisco Cervelli catching and gripping a bat with his surgically repaired hand puts him ahead of schedule of the preliminary timeline. The return of Cervelli wouldn’t necessitate the end of considering a Lucroy trade as an option, but it could complicate matters in regards to shuffling the catching situation with Chris Stewart.
Comparative trade history
Lucroy is still with the Brewers because he is set to only make $4 million this season, and the team holds a $5.25 million club option with a $250,000 buyout for 2017. He is easily one of the top catchers in the National League. Potential trade partners were turned away by the reported high demands made by the Brewers’ front office during spring training.
Historically, the cost for catchers with only months remaining on their current contract came at a relatively affordable cost.
In the 2014 offseason, the Cubs acquired Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks. In return, the Diamondbacks received Zack Godley, a right-handed starter who has been used mostly as a reliever in two brief stints in the majors, and Jeferson Mejia, a right-handed starter who has declined dramatically over two season at short season Single-A. At the time, Montero was in his second year of a five-year, $60 million contract.
In August of 2012, the Athletics sent Kurt Suzuki to the Nationals in exchange for top-15 prospect David Freitas, a catcher who has yet to make it to the majors and is now with the Cubs. Nearly a year later, the Nationals sent Suzuki, who was one of the keys to their NL East title winning 2012 season, back to the Athletics in exchange for Dakota Bacus, a reliever now back with the Nationals who has yet to make it to Triple-A. Suzuki made $5 million in 2012 and $6.45 million in 2013, as part of a four-year deal signed in 2010.
Case for Lucroy
At the time, Suzuki’s performance earned him a contract worthy of an above-average catcher. Though Lucroy’s option will certainly extend his contract through the 2017 season, the Brewers have to consider the impact of a high number of quality catchers that may be available on the free agent market this offseason on Lucroy’s trade value. A young Brewers team may be able to retain Lucroy beyond 2017, but his value will only decline from now until the end of his contract if they decide not to take their chances on re-signing him.
Luckily for the Pirates, even if the cost is higher than ordinary, they have the depth to pay the cost, within reason. Elias Diaz was rumored to be of interest to the Rangers during offseason negotiations for Mitch Moreland. Outside of Jacob Nottingham, the Brewers have no catching prospects in their MLB.com top 30 list. Nottingham has allowed 15 passed balls and thrown out 31.7% of attempted base stealers. Questions still linger whether he can be an MLB catcher. Diaz is close to becoming obsolete in the Pirates’ system. The Brewers likely wouldn’t take Diaz for Lucroy straight up, but it shouldn’t take anything of significance beyond him.
The Pirates could also consider dealing Stewart to provide a veteran presence to mentor Nottingham and a pitcher like Tyler Eppler as a good complimentary piece. Eppler and Altoona second baseman Erich Weiss is a third possibility that would benefit both clubs.
Ultimately, the move seems unlikely to make much difference this year, but it could make a big difference in 2017.
Photo credit: MLB.com