Martin Maldonado made his debut in Milwaukee in 2011 and has been the Brewers’ backup catcher since broke into the big leagues. He hasn’t started more than 66 games in a season; however, since Jonathan Lucroy blossomed into one of the game’s best catchers during his tenure, it’s understandable that Maldonado has had a difficult time earning playing time. To be fair, though, because the team’s first base situation deteriorated after Prince Fielder left, he has gotten a few at bats at that spot.
Ultimately, though, Maldonado has already earned the “career backup” label. He will turn 30 this season and has only accumulated 841 plate appearances and +4.3 WARP across five big-league seasons. His .225 TAv perhaps indicates why he’s been unable to push for more regular at-bats. The native of Puerto Rico has been a serviceable backup, but he has not been able to challenge Lucroy for playing time.
But with Lucroy almost out the door, Maldonado’s future is now a matter for serious consideration. His age alone rules him out from being the club’s catcher of the future, but he could very well be a short-term stopgap should the Brewers decide to keep him.
One factor affecting Maldonado’s future is his contract. He signed a two-year deal before the 2015 season that was designed to buy out his first two arbitration years, but he will still be under team control (although arbitration-eligible) after that contract ends this fall. And as a part-time player without flashy numbers, he should remain cheap enough even once he does get to the arbitration process.
He’s obviously not a future star, and one would not and should not expect him to be starter-quality. However, a competent backup is worth something to a contending team. Someone of Maldonado’s quality isn’t worth anything to the Brewers. If they could even have the opportunity to take a flier on a hard-throwing A-ball pitcher with no idea where anything is going, such a gamble would be worth the risk.
The new front office has done an excellent job this offseason at acquiring low-risk assets who may turn into something more valuable. They have done this without sacrificing the future in any way. They have also done this without bringing in players who could block their two best prospects, who are on the cusp of the majors. However, while this is a smart strategy that attempts to not prolong the rebuild, it doesn’t necessarily accelerate it. General manager David Stearns hasn’t acquired any key members of the next good Brewers’ team who are in the majors. The hope of the rebuild, primarily Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips, remain in the minor leagues, and even a best-case scenario for this winter’s additions would just see guys like Chris Carter and Garin Cecchini turn into solid role players, not franchise-altering ones.
What this means is that Maldonado doesn’t have much use to the Brewers over the next couple years as they are currently constructed. If the club trades Lucroy tomorrow, he can capably fill in and likely would not embarrass them if they had to play him for an extended period of time—and there is probably some sort of developmental value in that for the club’s young pitchers. However, he is a career backup approaching the back half of his career who will probably be 32 or 33 by the time the Brewers are good again, and that’s an optimistic scenario.
The conclusion of this, then, is that a Lucroy trade does not mean that the Brewers absolutely have to trade Maldonado as well. He’s shown that he can be moderately successful in the big leagues, albeit in short stints, and even if he were to be a disaster, the Brewers are not at the point of the win curve where his performance would matter. Major-league-quality backup catchers do have legitimate value, though, and the Brewers would be wise to explore the possibility of trading him should the opportunity present itself. Given Stearns’ activity this offseason, I expect he won’t hesitate to do that.