FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox were slated to hold their annual Casino Night on Friday night; “Bets without Mookie Betts,” they should call the event. The team’s decision to gamble on catcher Jonathan Lucroy reclaiming his career looks like a shrewd bet.
Lucroy was once among the elite, a tough-as-nails two-time All-Star who finished fourth in the National League MVP voting with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014. But his career and his numbers declined precipitously the last three seasons due to a herniated disk in his neck. He’s in Sox camp as a reclamation project, a non-roster invitee trying to crowbar his way on to Boston’s roster. The 33-year-old has a history with Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke, a titanium plate in his neck, and a new lease on baseball life.
You can’t help but root for Lucroy. He’s a feel-good story in a camp that could use some, and he’s a feel-good find for a team that has been defined in terms of who they’ve lost permanently (Betts and David Price) and temporarily (ace Chris Sale).
“Whenever you’re fighting yourself, your bat speed is really low, you’re hurt, you’re injured, you don’t feel good, it’s going to be hard,” said Lucroy. “No matter who it is, no matter what position you play, it’s going to be hard to perform. I’m finally feeling good. I’m ready to get in there. I’m feeling like I’m at full strength and can really contribute, getting rid of some of these bad habits that I’ve acquired over the past couple of years and get back to who I was.”
If Lucroy can become 75 percent of the player he was — he posted a cumulative .800 OPS and 18.7 wins above replacement from 2011–2016 — chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom will be doing backflips down Lansdowne Street. The Sox took a risk in signing Lucroy, because while the titanium device that was inserted during cervical disk replacement surgery this offseason has helped Navy Seals and hockey players return to duty, it’s uncharted territory for a baseball player.
Baseball is a grind, and no position endures more of that grind than catcher.
“It’s like the cutting edge of the spinal technology that they use,” said Lucroy, who sports a scar on the front of his neck. “It’s pretty amazing how I feel now. The doctor that I went to [Dr. Jesse Even] is one of the best doctors in the country at what he does. He has been doing this for five or six years, this surgery . . . He has never had an issue with any of those guys coming back saying they had a problem. We’re playing the odds here that it’s going to be good. It’s going to work out, and it’s going to help me get even better. I’m very grateful for that.
“I know there was some trepidation on [Boston’s] part because they’ve never seen it before, which is understandable. But I got cleared, and I’m here. I’m ready to go, and I feel good.”
Roenicke had a key role in convincing the Red Sox to roll the dice on Lucroy. Lucroy played for the Brewers from 2010–16, when he was traded to the playoff-bound Texas Rangers in August. Roenicke managed the Brewers from 2011 through the first 25 games of 2015. He vouched for Lucroy the teammate as much as the player competing with Kevin Plawecki for the reserve catcher job behind Christian Vazquez. The studious Lucroy totes a big binder with notes on hitters, and is renowned for his game-planning and game-calling, an ideal skill set for a backup.
Roenicke knows what Lucroy brings mentally, and what he looks like when he’s right physically.
“This guy when I had him, he was one of for sure the best hitting catchers that there was. We’ll wait and see,” said Roenicke. “He looks great. He looks strong. His BPs have been really good. So, hopefully, we get that hitter that we saw before.”
The hitter Lucroy had been the last three seasons was one trying to stay on the field at the expense of his body. From 2017–19, Lucroy compiled a .248/.315/.666 OPS slash line for Texas, Colorado, Oakland, the Los Angeles Angels, and the Chicago Cubs. He hit 18 homers, and
compared fighting through the nerve issues and the resulting loss of strength to a water hose that gets kinked. The water is dripping out, instead of flowing freely.
“When I was coming up, we were always taught as catchers to just tough it out and deal with it,” said Lucroy, part of playoff teams in 2017 (Colorado) and 2018 (Oakland). “I mean, catching is a hard position. You’re going to get hurt. It’s going to happen, and you want to go out there and you want to deal with pain. This is an injury that I really thought that I could handle, and I was wrong about that. It affected me a lot more than I thought it did.”
The pain and the lack of job prospects finally led Lucroy to find a solution this offseason. Still, the decision to undergo surgery wasn’t an easy one.
“When you think about spine surgery, it’s kind of scary, but it’s a situation where I was going to have a hard time finding a job because of my performance,” said Lucroy. “So, I wanted to be as healthy as I possibly could to make a team.”
In a good omen, the device in his Lucroy’s neck stabilizing the C5 and C6 vertebrae is made by the same company that manufactured the implant that golfer Tiger Woods had inserted into his back in 2017, providing Tiger a career lifeline.
The real test for Lucroy will be convincing the Sox he can hold up behind the dish. His first catching appearance came in Friday’s 4-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium. He entered in the sixth and caught two innings.
“I thought he looked pretty good for his first time out there,” said Roenicke.
Teams were able to take advantage of Lucroy while he persevered through the neck injury. In 2018, he allowed a Major League-high 72 stolen bases (despite him throwing out 30 percent of base stealers) and led the AL in catcher errors (10). Last season, he threw out 25 percent of base stealers.
Lucroy said working with former Sox catcher Jason Varitek and catching coordinator Chad Epperson to hone his craft and shed some of the deficiencies created by compensating for the injury has been invaluable.
He’s grateful for everything that comes with this opportunity.
“This is my first year not on a guaranteed contract. I’m OK with that. It’s what I’ve earned. I haven’t performed,” said Lucroy. “That’s just the bottom line. I know I haven’t. But I really am glad I came here, even if I don’t make this team . . . I’m very fortunate because even if I don’t make this team, I know I’m going to leave this camp better.”
There are no guarantees for the Sox or Lucroy, but it looks like their decision to gamble on each other could come up aces.