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Rays Trade Target: Jonathan Lucroy

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Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Rumors, stemming from Nick Cafardo from the Boston Globe, have the Milwaukee Brewers possibly shopping 29-year-old catcher Jonathan Lucroy. He adds that both the Astros and Nationals may be fits, but doesn't include the Rays who could benefit from an upgrade behind the dish.

Lucroy does have a limited no-trade clause in his contract, but recently stated he wants to win now.

"I want to go to a World Series. That’s what all players want. Rebuilding is not a lot of fun for any veteran guy. … It’s not guaranteed that I’m going to win if I am traded. But I’m going to be a 30-year-old catcher (in June). I can’t put numbers on how much longer I’m going to play, but as players we want to win. I don’t care about the money; I just want to win. That’s the bottom line."

Sounds like he's hungry and looking over the fence for a spot that would provide him that opportunity. Ken Rosenthal recently added that the Nationals are on his limited no-trade list, and that it includes 8 teams:

While we don't have access to his limited no-trade list, we do know he played high school baseball in Umatilla, Florida and hails from the Sunshine State. It seems doubtful that he would block off a spot so close to home, so we'll assume Tampa is a place he wouldn't block from the team's trade options.

Why Consider Trading for Lucroy?

The possible acquisition of Lucroy does make sense if you consider the current catching options in the A.L. East. The Yankees are calling on Brian McCann, the Blue Jays have Russell Martin, the Orioles have Matt Wieters, and the Red Sox are banking on Blake Swihart.

The current Rays options may lack the same pedigree and that management could look to upgrade at the position as a result. After all, the organization has been so aggressive in adding some offensive punch this offseason that it would make sense to finish the job by adding a true leader behind the plate.

This off-season, the Rays were able to add Hank Conger and to come to terms with Rene Rivera, avoiding arbitration. While it would seem that those two moves strengthened the Rays behind the plate, it also left something to be desired. Rivera is coming off a season that frustrated everyone, including himself, and he certainly didn't expect to return to TB after J.P. Arencibia cut into his playing time, stating:

"My opinion, my feeling, is that they're probably not thinking about me for next year,''

At the time, Rivera had a .493 OPS and had committed more errors than any other catcher in the American League. Not exactly a resume that makes you want to bank on a turnaround in 2016, when he's 32 years old and may still be frustrated if the Rays don't provide him with enough playing.

Conger, meanwhile, come with an impressive line against RHP, .279/.353/.538, but can't be trusted against LHP. He also famously struggled to hold runners last season when he only caught 2% of base runners, bringing up questions about his defensive play. However, he was ranked 14th by StatsCorner in pitch framing, just one spot ahead of Lucroy. Oddly enough, the 2014 rating had them flipped but still only 1 spot apart, with Lucroy finishing 3rd overall and Conger placing 4th. Both can be expected to provide above-average pitch framing.

Curt Casali is everyone's favorite to break out this season and hit 20 HR or more after they project what he achieved last season to continue through a full season. While it's understanding to get excited about how well he hit in 2015, it's important to remember that teams now have the scouting they need and may attack him more effectively. In fact, there was a definite drop in performance in 2015 after a hot June and July that saw him hit .200/.294/.467 in August, leaving questions about what to expect in 2016.

The Rays also have Luke Maile as a depth piece and could call on prospect Justin O'Conner, however neither has the bat to make an impact in the lineup.

Statistical Comparison

If the Rays do consider making a deal for Lucroy and trade some talent to acquire him, it's important to note how much of an upgrade he may be over current options. Here's a breakdown of some key statistics for the current top three options in Tampa and for Lucroy (courtesy of Fangraphs):

2014-2015 Age PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ WAR
Jonathan Lucroy 29 1070 9.5% 12.6% .150 .314 .347 117 7.2
Rene Rivera 32 648 5.9% 25.0% .139 .266 .273 74 2.1
Hank Conger 28 489 9.2% 24.5% .157 .273 .303 94 0.9
Curt Casali 27 197 8.1% 28.9% .225 .243 .314 102 0.8

...and with catcher framing stats from Statcorner (RAA) and Baseball Prospectus (FRAA):

Catcher Framing Sample '14 RAA '14 FRAA '14 Sample '15 RAA '15 FRAA '15
Jonathan Lucroy 10,064 22.1 16.9 6,329 7.3 0.9
Rene Rivera 6,135 18.3 26.9 6,656 5.7 5.8
Hank Conger 5,666 21.3 23.7 4,426 8.2 1.7
Curt Casali 1,831 0.6 0.5 2,263 -1.5 1.5

Looking through the statistics listed above, you can see that Lucroy's production in 2015 may not be much of an upgrade at all over what a combination of the current trio the Rays have on board could produce. It's important to remember that Lucroy struggled with injuries last year, including a concussion may have many teams questioning whether a trade should be considered.

With that information fresh in our minds, it's also important to note that Lucroy was an all-star in 2014. He hit 53 doubles that year and played much better defensively. Overall, he managed a 5.7 fielding, 22 Offense, 14.6 Defense, 56.1 RAR, 6.1 WAR, and an impressive 16.9 FRAA. The question is, which do you bank on, the 2014 or 2015 statistics?

Offensively and defensively speaking, expectations for Lucroy in 2016 depend on how healthy he remains. Catching is not forgiving and demands grit and an ability to play through some injuries. If Lucroy can avoid a lengthy injury, expecting somewhere around the 3 WAR range is not out of the question.

Could any of the current Rays option provide the same? It's possible, but it's unlikely that it would come on the back of balanced offensive and defensive output, something Lucroy is expected to provide.

Timing and Cost

Everything in the possible acquisition of Lucroy depends on his health and the cost to acquire him. The Brewers have reportedly put a huge price on him and it's understandable since he's been so important to them over the last few seasons.

Realizing that they'd likely be selling low, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio recently spoke highly of Lucroy and said he fully intends on having him as a Brewer this season. It's likely a way of telling teams that they're not going to act desperate in trading him, and will likely wait for him to increase his value before pulling the trigger on a deal.

Then again, a team trading for Lucroy would likely want to have him there all spring, getting to know the staff and coaches. That changes the dynamic, and indicates that the rumors Cafardo speaks of may be solid leads pointing to interested teams doing their due diligence based on timing. After all, if they wait to trade for him mid-season and after he proves healthy, the price could be higher than it might be right now.

Lucroy is signed at an affordable rate, $4M in 2016 and $5.25M in 2017 ($0.25M buyout). It's possible that any deal could also see some similarly salaried player head to Milwaukee, maintaining the financial breathing room the Rays need to operate within. Dealing someone like Matt Moore who is owed $5.1M, for instance, would actually lower the salaries owed.

Even with some prospects sent out in recent trades, the Rays system remains loaded with talent and the Brewers are hungry for young talent. In particular, the Rays have some intriguing catching talents that could interest the Brewers and help make a deal possible.

Final Thoughts

What it all comes down to is whether or not the Rays see Lucroy as enough of an upgrade to entice them to make a deal, and whether or not they're willing to pay the price the Brewers expect in return. With the team aggressively adding in areas of need, it seems to make sense that they would look to upgrade behind the plate.

The Rays have dealt some pitching depth this offseason and this move would likely cost at least one more. It may be worth the investment if they bank on a healthy and productive Lucroy, someone between what he achieved in 2014 and better than he managed in 2015, he could be the last of a solid list of moves for the Rays this off season.