From Greinke to Marcum to Axford to Roenicke, there has been a lot of speculation about contract extensions this Spring, and it looks like the Brewers have their first deal done. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy was scratched from the lineup today, and word got out quickly that his representatives and the Brewers were close to a contract extension that would likely be announced by the end of the day.
Tonight, Ken Rosenthal came out with the details, reporting that Lucroy and the Brewers had agreed to a 5 year deal for at least $11 million. Lucroy has a little over one year of service time to date (he may end up being a Super Two this Winter, which could push the value of his deal over $11 million), so the deal won't go into his free-agent years.
Lucroy has been the Brewers' everyday catcher since late May 2010, and has more or less been an average hitter at the position and a slightly below-average hitter overall: Compare his 2011 line (.265/.313/.391) to the average catcher (.245/.314/.390) and the average hitter (.255/.321/.299), and you see a fine player to have around, but not a guy that appears to be the long-term solution at anything, let alone a candidate for a five-year deal. However, Lucroy has a few things going for him-- namely room for growth at the plate and excellent glovework behind it-- that could make Lucroy a valuable complement to the sluggers and power arms around him, and could make this deal look very good in the future.
One of the reasons a lot of bloggers/fans are very bullish on Lucroy and the idea of extending him is that the Brewers likely aren’t paying for past production. Lucroy has been an acceptable hitter through this point in his career, but there are reasons to expect more from him in the years to come. For one, Lucroy won't turn 26 until June, so he's a good candidate to improve on his current numbers for the next couple years just by assumiing a typical aging curve. Perhaps more importantly, it can be argued that Lucroy was pushed into the majors before he was quite ready. Gregg Zaun's shoulder injury left the 2010 Brewers without a catcher, so they made Lucroy the major-league starter after just 21 AAA games. Lucroy not only became a big-league regular likely before he was fully seasoned, but was tasked with managing a brand-new pitching staff and learning the big-league game behind the plate: I've never been in that situation, but can hardly imagine trying to adapt to catching at the highest level while very nearly jumping from AA pitching to major-league arms. Hopefully, more years in the majors for Lucroy will also bring adjustments, and improved hitting with time, even if the end result is a league-average hitter.
Another thing Lucroy has going for him is his defense, which, depending on your source, is either merely passable or among the best in the majors. With the Brewers, Lucroy has been right around average at throwing out runners, and most defensive metrics have a similar opinion of his overall game. However, if you remember Mike Fast’s research (he has since been hired by the Houston Astros), there was evidence that Lucroy was one of the best catchers in MLB at framing pitches, to the point of saving his team 20+ runs a year. There’s certainly a bit of uncertainty and room for error here, but there is also enough information to suggest that Lucroy might be better than given credit for on both sides of the ball.
Barring a major injury or collapse (considering Lucroy’s position, the risk of both those things is greater than you might think), Lucroy should remain a solid, reasonably-priced, relatively young starter while the Brewers more star-heavy core gets older and more expensive. (At the very least, Lucroy’s long-term presence should ensure that it will be a while before the need strikes to throw money at an aging Jason Kendall clone.) However, between his youth, unusual development path, and possible unseen skills, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Lucroy might turn into an above-average starter, which would make this deal a heck of a bargain.