Jon Morosi of Fox Sports tweeted out last week that the Seattle Mariners are in the market for catching depth. In the days since, it has been suggested that the M’s are in fact searching for starting caliber backstops that would allow them to demote Mike Zunino to Tacoma.
With that in mind, Jonathan Lucroy is a name that would seem to make a lot of sense for Seattle. The Milwaukee Brewers have yet to officially announce Lucroy’s availability, but many are speculating he is on the trade block. The Brew Crew have reportedly denied overtures from Lucroy to extend his contract, and are widely expected to sell hard next Friday on deadline day.
The 29-year-old is considered to be one of the best backstops in the game. Lucroy has posted a .290 batting average with 46 home runs, 229 RBI’s and 17 stolen bases since 2012. He took his game to a new level last season when he hit .301 with 13 home runs, 69 RBI’s and led the league with 53 doubles. Lucroy represented the Brewers at the All-Star Game in 2014, and finished 4th in MVP voting.
Lucroy has been bit by injury bug this season, and he has had trouble replicating his breakout campaign. The UL-Lafayette alum is hitting .230 with 3 home runs and 20 RBI’s across 50 games. His .307 on base percentage and his .335 slugging percentage are both his lowest marks since his rookie year in 2010. However, Lucroy has posted a .296/.383/.437 slash line with 2 home runs and 8 RBI’s over his last 18 games.
Granted, he is not having a very strong season at the plate in 2015, but Lucroy remains a premier defender. He has registered a .992 career fielding percentage across 5106.1 innings behind the dish. Lucroy has thrown out a career high 35% of potential base stealers this year, which is well above the league average of 28%. He tallied 2.0 defensive wins above replacement last season.
Perhaps the most attractive thing about Jonathan Lucroy is his contract. He is one of the top catchers in the league, but he is not being paid like it. Lucroy is making $3 million dollars in 2015, and is set to earn a modest $4 million next year. He also has a $5.25 million dollar team option for 2017.
Lucroy is undoubtably the golden goose on the catching market this season, and it will take a strong offer to land him. A quick look at the Brewers top 20 prospects suggests they have no one in their system ready to fill the void left by Lucroy. The Mariners happen to possess one of the top young backstops in the game in the form of Mike Zunino, and he would likely have to be included in any return package.
May 9, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino (3) tracks down a ball during the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Much like Lucroy, Zunino broke out in a big way in 2014. The 24-year-old hit just .199 a season ago, but clubbed 22 home runs and drove in 60 runs across 131 games. However, Zunino has fallen off a cliff in 2015. He is hitting a measly .169 with 9 home runs and 24 RBI’s through his first 272 at bats. He has looked lost at the plate, and 35% strikeout rate supports this statement.
However, Zunino remains one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. The University of Florida alum has posted a career fielding percentage of .995 across 2268.1 innings. He has thrown out 41% of potential base stealers in 2015, and has tallied 1.3 defensive wins above replacement. Mike Z is putting together a Gold Glove caliber season.
Being that Zunino is a very young player, he represents a very affordable solution behind the plate. He is not arbitration eligible until after the 2016 season, and he will not hit the free agent market until after the 2019 season.
I truly believe the Mariners would be crazy to give up on Mike Zunino. Detractors fail to take his unique circumstances into account when they complain about his lack of offensive production. Zunino was rushed to the big leagues in 2013 after playing just 96 games in the minor leagues. He missed out on maturing at the plate in the minors, and is attempting to learn how to hit at the major league level against the best pitchers in the world. That is not an easy task.
No backstop in baseball has played more games in the last 2 seasons than Mike Zunino. In 2014, Zunino played 131 games, which was the second highest total of any catcher in the American League. This season he leads all other catchers in the AL with 88 games played. All these innings behind the plate take a toll, especially on such a young player who has no one advising him on how to pace himself.
The recent hiring of Edgar Martinez as the Mariners’ hitting coach has seemingly made a big impact on Zunino. After hitting rock bottom with a .155 batting average on June 22nd, Zunino has hit .203 with 2 home runs and 9 RBI’s since. He is fresh off his best series of the year, where he hit .417 with 3 doubles and 3 RBI’s in Seattle’s recent 4-game set in Detroit.
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I think Jonathan Lucroy is a great catcher who can help a lot of teams, but replacing Mike Zunino is not the right move for Seattle at this point. Zunino is the best young backstop the Mariners have had since Dan Wilson. He does a great job handling the pitching staff, and he has already developed into one of the leaders in the clubhouse. Combine all of these intangibles with the fact that he has some of the best power from the right side in baseball, and Zunino has star written all over him. I feel like Lloyd McClendon has made a lot of strange lineup related decisions in 2015, but trotting Zunino out there every night is not one of them.
Personally, I would like to see the M’s acquire a more viable backup rather than a starter like Lucroy. A.J. Pierzynski is another catcher available via trade, and he appears to be a perfect fit. The 38-year-old is a backup at this point in his career, and he will not threaten Zunino’s future in Seattle. A.J. can still hit a bit, but his defense is not what it once was. His best asset is his experience. Having played 18 years in the show, having Pierzynski around to help guide Zunino would be immensely valuable.