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Why the A’s should sign Jonathan Lucroy to a pillow contract

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The downside is minimal, even if it’s entirely possible.

MLB: NL Wildcard-Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks
The beard is an added bonus.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As it stands, the A’s payroll is at $59 million. That’s bad.

There are circumstances at play that make the payroll somewhat understandable. The team is trotting out quality youngsters and exciting rookies at most positions, with prospects waiting in the wings to fill roles held by older players. Those youngsters are the product of a rebuild which by nature deflates player costs. In a lot of cases, the A’s aren’t being cheap, they’re being smart.

But they’re also being cheap. Their payroll is slated to be around the second lowest in all of baseball behind just the hapless Phillies, it’s less than half of the league average payroll, and it comes just after baseball teams made a bunch of money from the sale of MLB Advanced Media. Essentially, it’s understandable that the A’s payroll is low given where they stand in their roster construction, but the team should continue to seek out fitting upgrades. They’re not good enough to justify not spending, and it doesn’t seem they’re searching.

Now the A’s shouldn’t just spend money for the sake of spending money. They certainly shouldn’t spend on long term options when the team has so many youngsters trying to lock down spots. There’s little clarity into what positions will be open beyond 2018, and trying to forecast a later roster is a difficult proposition.

The A’s best option (with the exception of extensions, which is a subject for another time) is to spend is on a short term contract in a role that can’t possibly affect the team’s chances in a negative way. Think Rich Hill, a signing with a built in contingency plan. If he’s bad or injured? So what! He didn’t prevent any signings, he wouldn’t block anyone if he struggled, he couldn’t possibly ruin a magical season on his own. The team has to plan for injuries, and a high upside starter with injury woes hardly impacts the logistics of the team - they’ve got to plan for 7+ starters at any given time, and a Rich Hill doesn’t impact that in any way. It only provides upside.

There are built in contingency plans to signing players at certain roles that prevent downside. If the A’s are to sign any more free agents this offseason, they should be in that vein.

The current catching corps

The Bruce Maxwell situation has a lot of nuance to it, which I won’t dive into at this time. From a legal perspective, it seems like things are going to be resolved and Maxwell will be the A’s Opening Day starter.

Behind him is his platoon mate, Josh Phegley. Phegley has fantastic hair and some MLB success, but he’s struggled since his strong rookie season in 2015. His WRC+ dropped from 106 that year to 87 the year following, down to just 56 last year. Those numbers are bad on their face, but worse when you consider he’s a platoon player, there to give the A’s an edge in the small percentage of games when they do face a southpaw. He usually faces a pitcher he should dominate, yet his numbers have been poor.

Still, Phegley is probably fine. Part of his issues have likely been injury related, and with a clean bill of health going into 2018, it would be no surprise to see his bat bounce back, making him a fine platoon catcher. His defense has always been a bit of an issue but again, nothing dire.

The case for Lucroy

Lucroy is a former star, just one year removed from an All-Star season where he put up a WRC+ of 123. That year, he was one of the better defensive catchers in the game too, making him nearly a 5 win player. That’s star territory thanks to star hitting and star fielding.

Last year, the only hitting that was done was shit against the fan. His offense bottomed out until he was traded to Colorado where he found his stroke in the thin mountain air. Even then, he wasn’t great. Defensively, his famed pitch framing plummeted bringing his defense down to a well below average level. It was an all around poor year for a guy just one removed from the second best of his career.

It’s no guarantee Lucroy will recover to anywhere near his All-Star form. His underlying stats don’t paint the portrait of an unlucky guy, rather a guy on the downswing. Signing him wouldn’t be a savvy analytics bet. It’d be a lottery ticket buy hoping something was wrong last year that’s healed in the offseason since. And that’s okay! Lottery tickets are fine when they lack downside in that Rich Hill way, and while it’s easy to think he has no shot at bouncing back, it’s important to remember older guys have off years too.

If he doesn’t bounce back, he’s not Billy Butler in terms of impact or years. It’d be a quick deal that would start with Lucroy in the platoon catching role, playing a few games every week or so here just to hit lefties. Bad case, Lucroy is a more expensive Josh Phegley. Worst case, Lucroy struggles and Phegley takes his spot and the contract is sunk. Contingency plan.

Better case, Lucroy proves his worth in that platoon role, forcing Bob Melvin to give him more playing time. Slowly the catching duties balance out, letting both catchers stay fully rested. Best case? Lucroy rebounds in full. It’s unlikely but not impossible. He could be a stabilizing force for a young pitching staff, he could take more playing time giving both he and Maxwell ample rest, and frankly, he could put the A’s over the edge.

Sounds perfect, right? It’s not a slam dunk and we should all have tempered expectations. Lucroy struggled mightily last year against lefties in a hopefully small sample blip. He’s always had normal splits against lefties and ideally his worse case scenario would be a good platoon bat. Last year proves it’s not a guarantee through the form of a typically useless small sample platoon split. I don’t place a ton of faith in his ability to rebound in full, but I do believe his ability to hit lefties will return. Much of his success came at altitude too, and while hitting at Coors still take skill, it won’t necessarily translate to Oakland.

Another thing to consider is his framing skills. A few years back, they were some of the best in the game but thanks to competition more intent on matching his skills and a likely decline in his own ability, he’s fallen off pretty stark cliff. Those skill are unlikely but not impossible to return, and they may be less important than before as umpires continue to improve.

The price

It doesn’t matter how you slice it, free agency is weird this year. Teams aren’t paying for past performance like they did in 2016.

That means Lucroy probably won’t see the multiyear deal he would have if he’d hit free agency a year earlier. The A’s should only pounce if he’s looking for a pillow contract to re-establish his value prior to a bigger payday next year. That may well happen! And while Oakland isn’t a great place for a hitter to prove he’s still got it, the A’s are one of very few teams with any question at catcher. The fit may be perfect.

My guess is that pillow contract will be somewhere in the one year, $10 million dollar range which puts the A’s at a still meager but not paltry (and nice) $69 million payroll. That seems like the magic number for where the Opening Day roster will top out, meaning Lucroy and another move may be mutually exclusive. That may be the best argument against Lucroy but otherwise, he’s a low risk, potentially huge reward move.

It’s not inconceivable for Lucroy to get multiple years, even with how this offseason has gone. If the commitment goes beyond one season, the A’s should be wary. At one year, there’s almost no risk, but the A’s will be careful not to muddy the payroll beyond 2018.

Poll

Jonathan Lucroy?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Yes, even beyond one season
    (296 votes)
  • 58%
    Yes, but only if it’s a one year commitment
    (549 votes)
  • 9%
    Nope, not even on a short term deal
    (92 votes)
937 votes total Vote Now