After years of terrible offensive play at catcher from Jason Kendall, the Milwaukee Brewers finally saw signs of life with 25-year-old Jonathan Lucroy during 2011’s NL Central Division title run. While it would be a stretch to say the Ted Simmons era of the early 1980s is back, the Brewers can finally say see their catcher as something more than just a body occupying a lineup.
That’s not to say that Lucroy doesn’t have some significant improvements to make. His final numbers of a .313 on-base percentage and .391 slugging won’t cut it. What he did was go on a very extended run of solid hitting early in the year, and if he can now keep that going through a full season, Milwaukee will have a competitive edge at a position where teams usually struggle for offense. Let’s see how Lucroy compares to his NL Central contemporaries…
St. Louis: Yadier Molina—Though he’s only 29 years old he’s been playing regularly since 2004, has two World Series rings and he’s authored one of his team’s—and major league baseball’s—iconic moments back in 2006 when his extra-inning home run beat the Mets in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Oh, and he just happened to have the best offensive year of his career. Molina is easily the best catcher in this division and one of the best in baseball.
Cincinnati: Ryan Hanigan—Hanigan is the man with the job right now, but I doubt anyone will be a full-time catcher in Cincinnati. Reds’ manager Dusty Baker loves 23-year-old Devin Mesocraco and is committed to eventually making him the starter. But Hanigan puts up good on-base percentage numbers—he’ll give you 200-plus at-bats with an OBP of .350 to .400. With the Reds likely going all-in to win the division this year and Baker’s seat sure to get hot if they falter, my guess is Hanigan gets plenty of playing time.
Pittsburgh: Rod Barajas—Don’t let his double-digit home run totals fool you. In spite of hitting between 11-19 HRs a year for the past four seasons, the 36-year-old Barajas is a complete liability in all phases of the game and easily the worst catcher in the division.
Chi Cubs: Geovany Soto—He should be in the conversation with Molina for best in the NL Central and this should be a raging debate between Cub and Cardinal fans. When Soto is hitting well, it is. But he oscillates between a an All-Star caliber year and a mediocre one. The good news on the North Side is that 2011 was mediocre.
Houston: Jason Castro—Manager Brad Mills is committed to the 24-year-old, and since, unlike Cincy’s Baker, Mills is not under the gun to win right away, Castro will likely open with the job. But Chris Snyder is a quality backup. Granted, Snyder has not had a really good year since 2008 in Arizona, but he was hitting well with Pittsburgh in 96 at-bats last year before injuries did him in. I know Mills will give Castro every chance, but the percentages say that Snyder is the starter when the All-Star break comes.
In ranking the NL Central catchers you have the extremes of Molina at the top and Barajas at the bottom. I’d situate Soto at #2, the rough average of his fluctuation between being the best or being in the middle on a year-to-year basis. Castro/Snyder in Houston would be at #5. That puts Lucroy in a battle with Hanigan/Mesocraco for third. It’s easy to laugh when I say a “battle for third”, but the team’s war in the standings is ultimately settled by a whole sequence of these little battles, and it’s important for Lucroy to be better than Cincy’s options and to at least be within shouting distance of the division’s best, if Milwaukee wants to make another run at the playoffs.