Rene Rivera is alright, and that is about the biggest complement you can give him. He gives the Tampa Bay Rays yet another terrific defensive catcher, but his bat has fallen entirely back to earth after a supposed breakout in 2014 and his hitting has been reminiscent of Jose Molina‘s time in the batter’s box from the last two years. The issue for the Rays, however, is that there are so few great catchers available, and when a team has one, they are so rarely willing to deal him.
Especially with Justin O’Conner, their’ top catching prospect, struggling at Double-A even after a recent hot streak, the Rays need to look outside the organization if they want a true starting catcher. The cost will be enormous, but the Rays have to at least consider paying it to get the type of player their franchise has been missing just about every season of its existence. The Rays would need to dangle multiple top prospects for the Milwaukee Brewers just to start a conversation about Jonathan Lucroy. Even so, that is conversation they need to consider having.
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There is even a 1% chance that Lucroy could be dealt because he is amid a down year in 2015. After hitting to a .301/.373/.465 line with a National League-leading 53 doubles in 2014 on his way to a fourth place finish in the NL MVP voting, Lucroy has slipped to a .242/.307/.335 line this season. However, even that would be a major improvement over Rivera, and there is reason to believe that he can rebound given his track record. In addition, he is another terrific defender at the catcher position who ranked among the top pitch framers in baseball from 2010 to 2014 (and we know how much the Rays value that), so it isn’t as though the Rays would be losing any defense by starting him.
The kicker with Lucroy, though, is his contract. The Brewers locked him up to a Rays-esque early-career extension worth just $10.28 million over five years. As part of the deal, he is making just $3 million this year and $4 million in 2016 before earning just $5.25 million when his team exercises his no-brainer team option for 2017. Even the Rays can afford that, and even if his bat never rebounds, that is a rate they would be glad to pay. There is so little risk involved with Jonathan Lucroy as a player, although the prospects it would take to acquire him certainly complicates the picture.
The Rays’ top prospects at this point are (in alphabetical order): Willy Adames, Taylor Guerrieri, Brent Honeywell, Daniel Robertson, and Blake Snell. Would the Rays be willing to give up two of them to net Lucroy? The answer is probably no because his struggles. However, especially given their pitching depth, would the Rays be willing to trade one of Guerrieri, Honeywell, and Snell? That would be getting to the point where the Rays would at least have to consider making a legitimate pitch to Milwaukee.
The Rays’ best offer for Lucroy would be say Snell, Justin O’Conner, the Brewers’ choice of Rivera, Curt Casali, and Luke Maile, plus an A-ball player with some upside like Andrew Velazquez. Is that an overpay for two years and two months of a catcher with a .642 OPS this year? They would be giving them a top-50 prospect in baseball, a catcher for now and another for the future, and another player who could turn into an above-average major leaguer! Maybe it is, but the Brewers still might not take it.
Even as they struggle through a season where their hopes are beginning to slip away, the Tampa Bay Rays have to ask the Brewers about their asking price for Jonathan Lucroy and see if there is any chance that a deal can get done. Lucroy could give them a boost the remainder of the season and then be a franchise player for the next two years. It would be great if the Rays could extend Lucroy beyond that, but if they believe that they will contend during that period, even two seasons would be enough. A deal for Lucroy can’t be considered likely, but after years of mediocre catching situations, the Rays would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t call the Brewers about him.