The Washington Nationals’ Mistake: Jonathan Lucroy

This morning, the news came out that the contract the Oakland Athletics tendered to free agent catcher Jonathan Lucroy is a one-year, $6.5MM deal. This morning, the Washington Nationals' previously flawless offseason was marred.

Prior to the announcement of this contract, the Nationals' offseason had been going great. Key signings had been made: Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, and Howie Kendrick were brought back. Matt Adams replaced the departed Adam Lind. After Matt Wieters' abysmal 2017 campaign, there had been rumblings that the Nationals might seek to upgrade at catcher, but no one could blame them for refusing to part with top prospects Victor Robles and Juan Soto to bring in J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins. Some wondered if the Nationals would swing for the fences on a premium free agent catcher like Jonathan Lucroy or Alex Avila, but again, no one could blame them for avoiding those high price tags with Wieters' $10.5 million dollars already on the books.

But the 2017-2018 offseason wasn't what anyone expected. March 1st rolled around and top free agents were still without contracts. All talk of collusion aside, the premium free agents were suddenly in the bargain bin. And when Jonathan Lucroy signed with the Oakland A's on a risk-free, $6.5 million dollar deal, frankly, it became obvious the Nationals' front office had made a mistake.

$6.5 million dollars. An unbelievably large amount to you and I, is downright economical in MLB terms. Here are some examples of catchers who have signed for comparable amounts the last two years and their career OPS+ numbers*. The list isn't exactly full of proven stars.

Welington Castillo ($7.25MM, 100 OPS+)
Evan Gattis ($6.7MM, 114 OPS+)
Wilson Ramos (6.25MM, 99 OPS+)

*Using On Base Percentage + Slugging (OPS) as a base, OPS+ tells us how many percentage points above or below league average (represented by a 100 OPS+) a players OPS was.

These are average to slightly above average catchers, usually with flaws. In other words, a far cry from the consistently above average hitting and fielding backstop Jonathan Lucroy. Is there really any argument that Lucroy isn't a far better behind the dish than Wilson Ramos, Evan Gattis, and Welington Castillo? If there is, let's dismantle it. Lucroy has been revered as one of the top defensive catchers in the game for the past 5 years or so. Other than his less than stellar offensive 2017, he hasn't had a below average offensive season since 2011 (his first full season in the majors). And, for those shouting regression, after his trade to the Rockies last year he finished the season by hitting for 15% better than league average according to OPS+.

Lets compare him to Ramos, Gattis, and Castillo, then. Prior to signing with the Rays, Wilson Ramos was coming off of his first above average offensive season since 2013 (when he only played in 78 games) and had finished the prior year by tearing his ACL. He was rewarded for this inconsistent, injury-riddled pedigree with a two-year deal featuring an average annual value of $6.25MM.

Evan Gattis has always been viewed as below average catcher. Enough so that teams haven't even wanted him to be behind the plate full-time, preferring to hide him in the DH spot or left field whenever possible. His offense is comparable to Lucroy's, but features well below-average on-base skills, and any sabermetrician will tell you that on-base skills more directly translate to runs than pure power. Lucroy's above average career .343 OBP shines like a beacon in the light of that knowledge.

Welington Castillo has a reputation for being a bat-first catcher, with notably poor defense. His career OPS+ sits right at league average however, so I'm not sure if his reputation actually fits. Even if his defense did take an upward swing last year, his numbers could never place him in the same strata as Lucroy.

After looking at these players, signing Jonathan Lucroy to a $6.5MM, one-year deal is almost an incredulously good roster move, an incredulously good roster move that Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo should have made. At the worst, the Nationals pick up a good defensive catcher and right-handed platoon partner for the declining Matt Wieters. At best, you've added an all-star catcher who could even collect a few stray MVP votes to an already star-studded roster. In other words, the Nats signing Jonathan Lucroy was a no-brainer. Instead, A's GM Billy Beane (again) looks like the exploitative genius he is, and the Nationals might find themselves (again) sitting on the couch in late October.

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