DETROIT -- The Tigers aren't expecting to do anything big by Monday's non-waiver Trade Deadline at 4 p.m. ET, general manager Al Avila warned last week. That doesn't mean they're not going to shop.
When the Tigers sent a scout to last week's Brewers-Pirates series in Pittsburgh, the belief was that Detroit's front office was eyeing relievers on both sides. Turns out, the Tigers were watching more than Mark Melancon, Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress. They also had an eye on catcher Jonathan Lucroy, potentially the most impactful position player on this year's market. With just days to go before the Deadline, the reported interest -- first noted by Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network and FOX Sports -- adds a little bit of intrigue that Avila warned would be anything but.
It's a long path from interest to an actual trade. Lucroy has a handful of other reported suitors, including the American League Central-leading Indians, the AL West-leading Rangers, the defending National League champion Mets and the AL East-contending Red Sox, and those teams have deeper farm systems than the Tigers.
In a sport of industry sources and well-timed leaks, it could well end up being little more than motivation to get more out of Cleveland, which lost Yan Gomes on July 18 to a separated right shoulder and is currently platooning Roberto Perez and Chris Gimenez. But if the trade market continues to value pitching over position players, Detroit would have reasons for at least exploring the Lucroy market, besides applying pressure to a division-leading foe.
With J.D. Martinez on a path to return to right field shortly, catching is the offensive weak point in a deep Tigers lineup. Detroit's .203 average from its catchers ranks 27th out of 30 Major League clubs, while its .645 OPS ranks 23rd. The Tigers are 17th in WAR from their catchers thanks to standout defense from James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Lucroy ranks third among Major League catchers this year with a 2.8 WAR, and he's second only to Washington's Wilson Ramos in offensive WAR. Defensively, Lucroy has thrown out 32 of 80 would-be basestealers.
Lucroy has also historically ranked among the game's best pitch framers, though statistical services have downgraded his standing in recent years. He ranks 10th among Major League catchers with 5.0 Framing Runs Above Average, according to StatCorner.com. McCann and Saltalamacchia stand at minus-3.8 and minus-7.3, respectively. Depending on your opinion of pitch framing, it's arguably a way to improve pitching without actually making a move for pitching.
Financially, Lucroy isn't as damaging to a payroll as other major deals would be. He's under contract for $4 million this season, with a $5.25 million club option for next year. Add in the 30 percent or so penalty of the luxury tax on Detroit's payroll overage, depending on next year's luxury tax threshold, and it remains relatively digestible. Assuming the Tigers would have to trade McCann in a deal, giving Milwaukee a young catcher in a return, the option year on Lucroy -- who just turned 30 -- could be a crucial bridge.
Still, for an organization increasingly focused on the long term, the impact there is the big question. The highest-ranked catcher on MLBPipeline.com's midseason list of Detroit's Top 30 Prospects is Class A Lakeland's Kade Scivicque at No. 20, followed by Double-A Erie's Grayson Greiner at 27. Trading McCann puts a question mark behind the plate for 2018 and beyond. What more the Tigers would have to deal could do the same.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.