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02/18/11 2:53 PM EST
Lucroy determined to show 'true worth'
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- By most accounts, catcher Jonathan Lucroy did an admirable job for the Brewers in 2010. At 23 years old and with all of 80 career at-bats above Double-A, he jumped to the big leagues and replaced injured veteran Gregg Zaun. He started 74 games, batted .253, learned an entirely new pitching staff and held his own by throwing out 31 percent of would-be basestealers. As a bonus, he became a first-time father in early August, and somewhere along the way he convinced Brewers brass that he was ready to be the regular catcher in 2011. So could someone please convince Lucroy that his rookie season wasn't a total bust? "I'm not pleased at all," he said. "I have not shown my true worth. I think I'm definitely better in all aspects of my game. The way I hit was a little bit inexcusable. I'm a lot better than the way I hit. I know I am. "I don't have any excuses for it. I just stunk -- bottom line." Here's where the devil's advocate is supposed to jump in and point out that his offense might have suffered because he was learning on the job.
"I don't make excuses for myself," he said. "Yeah, there's a lot on my plate, but other people have done it. Look at [third baseman] Casey McGehee. He has two kids at home and he came up [in 2009] and had a [heck] of a rookie year and then a [heck] of a year [in 2010]. He never made excuses. I'm going to prove that I'm a better player than I was last year."
At least Lucroy gives himself credit for his work behind the plate. After some notable early hiccups, like the night he wore a path to the pitcher's mound because he couldn't keep up with left-hander Randy Wolf's set of signs, Lucroy played a part in stabilizing a staff that struggled mightily in April and May.
That's the priority for 2011, he said. If Lucroy hits like he believes he should, "it's a bonus, considering how good the rest of our lineup is."
So he'll focus hard on his defense.
There are some new repertoires to learn this year, most notably those belonging to starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, but the rest of the staff is mostly back intact. Lucroy expects to be more comfortable in his crouch.
"That comes with experience," he said. "The more experience I get, the better I'll get."
He put on 12 pounds of muscle over the winter, pushing him to 202. He knows the weight will start dropping as the weather turns warm, and he's hoping the few extra pounds help him feel stronger this September.
Lucroy is wearing No. 20 this spring, a symbolic leap forward from the No. 87 he donned a year ago.
"I don't have to fear for my job like I did last year," he said. "I have a little sense of security, but I don't want to take it for granted. There's an important balance there. I'm going to remember that all year."
So far, manager Ron Roenicke is impressed.
"Great mind," Roenicke said of Lucroy. "Really puts in the effort. Wants to look at videos, wants to look at the advanced reports. Last year, trying to come up in the middle of the season and learn a whole new staff, learn the signs for throw-overs, learn the signs from every pitcher, learn the signs from the third-base coach, that's a lot to ask from a guy. This year, I expect him to be way more comfortable, way more relaxed. We've talked about those things already."
Lucroy has also made a positive early impression on Marcum, one of the Brewers' high-profile additions.
"Jonathan Lucroy, in the short time I've been here, has kind of taken a leadership position in terms of getting to know myself and the other pitchers," Marcum told the crowd at Brewers On Deck last month. "He's gone out and gotten film to learn what we do and how we like to pitch. I think going into Spring Training, he's already a step ahead of the game on what we like to do so it'll make that transition a lot easier."
With Lucroy set, the question shifts to the backup spot, and two catchers on the 40-man roster would appear to have the inside track.
Incumbent George Kottaras, 27, is a left-handed hitter with power (he hit nine homers in 250 plate appearances for the Brewers last season) who knows the staff but did not distinguish himself defensively, throwing out only 15 percent of runners. If you don't count pitchers' pickoffs, he threw out just four of 48 would-be basestealers, or 8.3 percent.
If the Brewers opt for defense, they could pick 33-year-old veteran Wil Nieves, a right-handed hitter signed to a $775,000 contract at the Winter Meetings. Non-tendered by Washington in November, Nieves has never hit much in parts of seven seasons in the Majors with the Padres, Yankees and Nationals, and he topped out at 224 at-bats with Washington in 2009. He has a career .227 batting average and has thrown out 24 percent of basestealers.
Among the Brewers' non-roster invitees is Mike Rivera, who was Milwaukee's backup from 2006-09 before he was non-tendered. He's aiming to make Roenicke's decision tough.
"It [depends on] what your team needs," Roenicke said. "Sometimes you definitely want a catch-and-throw guy. [In Anaheim] we had Jose Molina for years, and you're not going to get a better catch-and-throw guy. Some teams, you need some offense. You want that guy who, when he plays every five days, [provides] some offense. It depends on the needs of the team."
While that battle plays out this spring, Lucroy can focus on preparing for baseball by day and playing dad by night. His wife, Sarah, gave birth to Ellia on Aug. 6 and three weeks later, she attended her first Brewers game.
"My wife said she got really excited coming to the games," Lucroy said. "I guess she likes all the noise and all of the people. Hopefully that means she'll be a big baseball fan."
Lucroy struggled with being away from Sarah and Ellia for the final two months of the baseball season. He caught up over the winter, when the Lucroys moved into their first family home in Lafayette, La. Sarah grew up there and Jonathan attended college at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
So which was the harder 2010 task? Learning a big league pitching staff or adjusting to life as dad?
"That's a really good question, but I think I have to say it was harder in the big leagues," Lucroy said. "Being a father comes natural to you because you fall in love with her the first second you see her. It just happens."
Position analysis• Manager
• Second base