In a season highlighted by Ryan Braun's denial and subsequent un-denial of performance enhancing drugs, a 74-win Brewer team was a surprising source of fantasy talent, from the speedy Jean Segura to the multi-dimensional Carlos Gomez to the other Khris Davis. One name you don't hear mentioned often -- but probably should -- is Jonathan Lucroy, who led Milwaukee with 82 RBI in the absence of the team's best hitter (Braun), in addition to a full season without Corey Hart and a long stretch without Aramis Ramirez.
With Braun's return and Segura and Gomez's coming-out party, Lucroy -- who has quietly emerged as a top-five catcher -- could once again be the forgotten Brewer on draft day. Among backstops, Lucroy finished No. 4 in 2013, ahead of Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana and Brian McCann -- all of whom you will find listed ahead of Lucroy in the Fake Teams Consensus Rankings. And, according to the most recent NFBC Average Draft Positions, Lucroy is the No. 8 catcher.
I -- like the NFBC experts -- ranked Lucroy eighth behind Salvador Perez, as I have long been a big believer in the Royals' backstop, but Perez hasn't come close to matching Lucroy's best season. So what gives? In a stroke of good timing, Dan Szymborski's 2014 ZiPS Projections for the Brewers were released at FanGraphs on Monday, along with the following line for the 27-year-old:
.276/.331/.437, 53 R, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 7 SB
ZiPS projects a slight regression for Lucroy, with decreased counting stats across the board. I see things shaking out a little bit differently, however, with my biggest disagreement coming in terms of power. Lucroy hit a career-best 18 home runs in 2013 on the heels of a 22.8 percent line drive rate and a career-best 38 percent fly ball rate. While you would like to see an even higher fly ball rate, Miller Park plays very friendly for right-handed power and Lucroy has benefited with 28 out of 46 career home runs coming in his home park. He was well on his way to topping 18 home runs in 2012 before a freak accident sidelined his season; that year, he smacked 12 long balls in 316 at-bats, including a career-high .193 ISO. Last season's .175 ISO was down, but his upward trending line drive rate is a reason for optimism. And, over the last two years, Lucroy's batted ball distance (286.06 feet) has topped Rosario and Santana's. If the trend continues, 20 home runs is a real possibility.
One thing you're likely to get from Lucroy is a solid average, as he batted .320 and .280 in 2012 and 2013, respectively. A 40-point decrease isn't a great thing, but the signs of regression were there. A .338 BABIP helped Lucroy's batting average in 2012, and it predictably fell with a .290 BABIP last season. Lucroy's contact rates were right in line with 2012, however, and his swing rates all improved, including a 31.6 percent rate on pitches outside of the strike zone (down from 33.6). With a solid line drive rate and an improvement in both strikeout rate (11.9 percent, down from 12.4) and walk rate (7.9 percent, up from 6.4), I feel safe projecting a .280-.290 BA in 2014, and Daniel Schwartz's calculations from Rotobanter see a similar outcome with a batting average projection of .285.
Boosting Lucroy's value last season were nine steals in 10 attempts. Milwaukee was a run-heavy club in 2013, stealing 142 bags (third most), thanks mainly to the efforts of Segura, Gomez and ex-Brewer Norichika Aoki. Manager Ron Roenicke won't hold his guys back, but guaranteeing another nine steals, let alone five, is a dangerous proposition for a catcher. Lucroy stole four bags in 2012, so a safe range is somewhere in the four-to-eight discussion.
One area I do see improvement coming is in runs scored. Lucroy crossed home plate 59 times last year, a career best, despite the Brewers missing multiple pieces in their lineup. If he approaches 530 at-bats again, I think a new career high could be set, but don't go too crazy. He'll likely bat fifth or sixth, so his biggest contribution will once again come in RBI. With an NFBC ADP of 87.13, Lucroy might go as early as the eighth round in competitive leagues, but I can see him slipping to the ninth or tenth. If you don't target a catcher early, he is more than capable of out-producing his current ADP with contributions in all five roto categories.
Rotobanter projection ($11.72): .285 BA, 58 R, 17 HR, 81 RBI, 6 SB