With the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline on the horizon, the next couple of days promise to be full of exciting swaps between contenders and sellers. The Indians have already made one significant deal, landing relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber at the cost of top catching prospect Francisco Mejia.
That transaction, in fact, got me thinking. Unless you literally just became an Indians fan this year or last, you probably remember the “other” deadline blockbuster the Tribe tried to make in 2016. Two years later, the aftermath of that Trade That Never Was echoes throughout the franchise. While the implications mostly work dramatically in the Indians’ favor, there’s one nagging element that haunts me to this day. That’s why I’ve decided to pick apart the failed Jonathan Lucroy trade and examine every element, piece by piece.
The Transaction That Never Happened, In Detail
In case you need a refresher, these are the details: in addition to striking an deal with the Yankees to nab Andrew Miller, Cleveland reached an agreement with the Brewers to acquire catcher Lucroy in exchange for minor-leaguers Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen, Yu-Cheng Chang and Shawn Armstrong.
At a moment in time where Brady Aiken still ranked as the second-best minor leaguer in the Tribe’s system, Mejia was the headliner in the agreed-upon package. He was 22 at the time, and was already being lauded for his hit tool after batting .347 with the Lake County Captains en route to a promotion to Class-A Advanced Lynchburg. MLB Pipeline projected him to be an average defender behind the plate while giving his arm a whopping 70 grade on the scouting scale. He was considered the sixth-best prospect in the Tribe’s system (fourth-best after Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield went to the Yankees) and the third-best catching talent in the minors, but did not rank among baseball’s top 100 prospects at the time of the deal.
The other pieces in the deal, Chang, Allen and Armstrong, were all ranked among Cleveland’s top 30 prospects (11th, 17th, and 30th, respectively). So although the Indians were dealing from the cream of their farm system, they would have avoided giving up any one of their five prospects ranked among MLB Pipelines top 100, while getting a year and a half of Lucroy at a reasonable salary that fit within the Indians’ budget. That would have looked like a great get on the Tribe’s part, considering the former All-Star was hitting .299/.359/.482 with 13 homers on the season for Milwaukee
The Butterfly Effect Begins
Rather than join the Indians, though, Lucroy famously opted to exercise his no-trade clause (a list of eight teams on which they were included) and block the move for a variety of reasons; he ultimately ended up being shipped to the Rangers instead. Lucroy being the Tribe’s only worthwhile option to upgrade at the position, they instead opted to stand pat with Roberto Perez, Chris Gimenez and the injured Yan Gomes as their catching options.
Instead, Lucroy ended up being shipped to the Rangers (to whom he could not block a deal) along with reliever Jeremy Jeffress. The Brewers received Lewis Brinson as the headliner in the deal, who at the time was ranked as baseball’s number 14 overall prospect (via MLB Pipeline). At the time, it seemed as though Brinson alone was a far better return than anything Milwaukee would have received from Cleveland; I guess that’s why teams don’t pay much attention to public top prospect lists. Beyond Brinson, the Brew Crew also netted Double-A right-hander Luis Ortiz and a player to be named later. On September 5th of that year, the PTBNL was announced as third baseman Ryan Cordell– the Rangers’ 6th-best prospect.
The 2016 Postseason
The Rangers ended up riding the production of both Lucroy and Jeffress straight to the playoffs. Jeffress posted a 2.70 ERA down the stretch, while Lucroy hit .276/.345/.539 across 168 plate appearances in the season’s final two months. However, the ALDS was an entirely different story. A three game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays eliminated the Rangers in the first round; Lucroy managed to reach base just once in 12 at-bats during that series (a Game 3 single). Meanwhile, Perez was one of three Indians to homer off Game 1 starter Rick Porcello in a matchup that ended up being decided by just one run.
Perez was solid if unspectacular the rest of the way, but created his own historic moment when he became just the second catcher ever to homer twice in his World Series debut. All told, he hit .184/.300/.419 in 52 postseason plate appearances. The Indians masked the lack of high caliber production from Perez and Gomes by pulling them for pinch-hitters in high leverage situations and subsequently bringing the other in as a defensive replacement. The Indians, of course, lost to the Cubs in an extra-inning Game 7 rubber match, but it looks as though they came out ahead simply by virtue of not having Lucroy on the team… at least at first glance.
The Echoes Reverberate
Had the Indians managed to acquire Lucroy, he’d have likely served as their Mike Napoli replacement headed into the 2017 season; that is, while he’d have seen some time behind the plate, the career backstop would have mostly garnered at-bats as a first baseman and designated hitter (a big part of his reasoning for blocking the trade in the first place). In his absence, the Indians were forced to turn to the free agent market. There, they emerged as a surprise landing spot for Edwin Encarnacion, whom they signed to a three-year, $60MM deal that was widely seen as one of the offseason’s biggest bargains.
The Brewers, meanwhile, saw Brinson’s stock drop a bit when he failed to do much of anything in his first taste of MLB action in 2017. Still, they managed to flip him to Miami the following offseason as the headliner in a package for Christian Yelich. Notably, that kept Yelich out of the hands of other potential suitors, such as the American League-rival Astros. While there’s no real science to this claim, it’s not all that far-fetched to look at this as another win for the Tribe.
A shocking free-fall in Lucroy’s offensive production was one of many reasons the Rangers fell out of contention by the end of July 2017. He hit just .242/.297/.348 in 306 plate appearances with Texas before the club traded him to the Rockies. There, he managed a much more impressive .310 average and .429 on-base, but even while playing half his games in Coors field, Lucroy’s power never returned- he hit just two homers following that trade. Meanwhile, Gomes played typically excellent defense behind the plate and amassed 1.8 fWAR against Lucroy’s 1.2. Encarnacion’s .258/.377/.504 slash line completely dwarfed Lucroy’s .265/.345/.371, which would have been seen as an offensive liability in a first base/DH role.
During the same season, Mejia made his mark on the minor league stage. He famously put together a 50-game hitting streak that vaulted him into the national spotlight; it was one contributing factor to his rise up the prospect rankings all the way into MLB Pipeline’s top 25 and as high as number six overall on Baseball America’s list. The Indians, as I mentioned above, were able to ship Mejia to San Diego in order to pad their bullpen with two elite relievers in Hand and Cimber, putting a much-needed bandage on their roster’s biggest tender spot.
Allen is still struggling to find his footing at the MLB level, but he’s currently one of few outfield options the Indians have thanks to a series of injuries to Bradley Zimmer, Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin. Without him, the Tribe would be even worse off at the moment. There’s still plenty of time for him to develop the OBP skills he flashed in the upper minors, where he reached base at nearly a .400 clip. Chang’s currently seen as the Tribe’s 7th-best prospect; he’s hitting .259/.333/.432 at Triple-A Columbus with 10 homers in 387 plate appearances. The Indians shipped Armstrong to the Mariners this past December in exchange for a healthy $500K in international bonus pool space.
All seven of these developments seem to have worked in favor of the Indians franchise, which would absolutely be worse off right now had Lucroy okayed the trade to Cleveland. So instead of booing him every time he plays at The Jake, maybe Tribe fans should be buying him a beer and shaking his hand.
The Alternate Universe
It’s reasonable to deduce that Lucroy’s decline would have likely hurt the Indians in 2017, and it’s clear as day that they’ve been able to get better value out of the prospects who would have been shipped to Milwaukee in that trade. But there’s one small factor, one little “what if” buried deep within a pile of hypotheticals that still nags at me when reassessing this failed trade with the Brewers: what if the Indians had Lucroy for the 2016 playoffs?
Yes, he had just one hit in 12 at-bats against Blue Jays pitching in the ALDS. But he also hit .292/.355/.500 during the regular season; lack of production 12 trips to the plate can easily be written off as a mini-slump, even considering the fact that September was Lucroy’s worst month of the season by wOBA and wRC+. If we were to map a range of outcomes for Lucroy’s postseason hitting performance against Red Sox, Blue Jays and Cubs pitching as a member of the Indians, the majority would probably yield impressive offensive statistics. There’s certainly an overwhelming probability that his output would have exceeded that of Perez in those three playoff series, and in any event he’d have been far more valuable on the roster than Gomes, who was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and an error through the entire postseason.
According to Fangraphs’ leverage index, Perez performed poorly overall in critical situations, earning him a “clutch” rating of -0.2. Furthermore, Perez was valued negatively by Win Probability Added, the web site’s statistical formula for win advancement and loss advancement relative to the leverage of each individual at-bat. His “WPA” was -0.15 for the postseason, which is actually significant for a 15-game span. If we were to expand that across a full season, Perez would project to cost his team over a win and a half.
Cranking up the microscope and making a deep event-by-event examination makes the whole thing even more haunting; while his two solo bombs in Game 1 of the World Series were cool as hell, the Indians went on to win that game 6-0. In short, they didn’t make a difference in the outcome of the game. And while his game-tying solo shot in the third inning of Game 1 against Boston was certainly a difference-maker in a narrow 5-4 win, there’s a solid chance Lucroy could have provided a run in his stead, and in any case the Tribe would’ve had something close to a 50-50 shot at an extra-inning win. Regardless, the Indians won that series 3-0, so a Game 1 loss certainly wouldn’t have been a death sentence. With Game 4 still left to play and a peak Corey Kluber lined up to make a possible Game 5 start, the odds to advance to the ALCS would still have been overwhelmingly in Cleveland’s favor.
It gets worse when looking at the World Series itself. As I mentioned earlier, Perez’ two homers in that series came in Game 1, making them superfluous in what turned out to be a blowout. Actually, only three games in that entire series were decided by a margin of three runs or less, and all of those were one-run games: a 1-0 Cleveland win in Game 3, a 3-2 Chicago victory in Game 5, and the 8-7 series finale. Perez had a hit and a walk in eight plate appearances in those games, but with nary a run batted in or scored. In fact, he stranded a whopping six runners in those three games combined, including leaving three on base in a Game 5 that the Tribe lost by one run. Gomes also left a runner stranded in Game 7.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Nothing in the section above is to say that the Indians would definitely have won the 2016 World Series had they been able to successfully acquire Lucroy. After all, alternative timelines aren’t nearly as simple as plugging one hitter in for another in each individual at-bat of the postseason. On the contrary, as anyone familiar with the butterfly effect knows, Lucroy’s presence in Cleveland on August 1st would have entirely randomized the series of events that took place from that point on, meaning there’s no guarantee the Indians would have even made it past Boston in the postseason’s first round. But what we do know is that the way things unfolded in our reality, Tribe catchers were bad in the postseason and had a negative impact on their win probability in the World Series, while Lucroy was the best catcher in all of baseball that year.
As things stand, though, the Indians are a much better team this year and last simply because Lucroy blocked this trade. Encarnacion, Hand, Cimber, and Allen are all with the Tribe because that swap failed (the latter three for at least three seasons beyond 2018), and they all improve the club’s chances to win this season to varying degrees. The value those players are likely to provide this year and in the seasons ahead far outweigh what Lucroy would have done in a year and a half with Cleveland.
If the Indians win the World Series this season or in any of the following three, nobody will ever have to think twice about what happened with Lucroy. We’ll all look back on the busted transaction and see it as a blessing in disguise- one that helped the Indians get some of the pieces that helped them win it all. But if they don’t win it all while this window of contention is open, there will always be a nagging little hypothetical in the back of our heads, and a simmering disdain for the Milwaukee All-Star that didn’t want to come to Cleveland. There’s one haunting, indisputable bottom line: the way things played out, the Indians didn’t win a championship in 2016, and had Lucroy approved the deal, there’s at least a chance they might have.
What do you think? Would you trade everything- the memories of the magical 2016 World Series run, the record 22-game win streak, Encarnacion, Hand, Cimber, Allen, Chang, all of it- for alternate timeline in which the Indians might have won it all after acquiring Lucroy? Or are you content with our reality in which they lost Game 7 but have a better chance this year thanks to the ripple effects of the non-trade? Let us know in the comments, or hit us up on Twitter at @alwaysthejake!
Featured image courtesy of Keith Allen, via Flickr.