Lucroy, Maldonado form talented, homegrown tandem
Pair of 26-year-old catchers feed off each other, eager to aid young pitching staff
PHOENIX -- When Martin Maldonado arrived in the Brewers' clubhouse last May, he reached out his left hand to greet the man he was replacing. Jonathan Lucroy couldn't shake with his right hand, which was broken and would require surgery and two months on the disabled list.
It might have been awkward -- not just the handshake, but the whole situation between these two young Brewers catchers.
But Maldonado insists it was anything but awkward.
"When I shook his hand, I knew we were going to be all right," Maldonado said. "He looked at me and said, 'Whatever you need, come talk to me.' I think we take care of each other, and that means a lot.
"From when I walked in that door, 'Luc' has been my mentor. He's my same age and he's my mentor. He was a big part of my success last year."
Informed a bit later about this heartfelt sentiment, Lucroy looked over at Maldonado, who was only a few lockers away. The look said, "Really?"
"I think we need to come up with something better than 'mentor,'" said Lucroy. "When I think 'mentor' I think of an old man with a beard and grey hair."
The grey hairs are still somewhere in the future for this pair of 26-year-olds, born two months apart and now paired as the Brewers' catching tandem. Manager Ron Roenicke has been clear that Lucroy is the No. 1 and will make the majority of starts, but Maldonado could see significant playing time as a batterymate of one or more of the Brewers' young starters -- particularly Spanish-speaking righty Wily Peralta, the top pitching prospect who is competing for a spot in Milwaukee's rotation.
Both Lucroy and Maldonado proved last season they belong. Lucroy batted .345 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in his first 43 games and was garnering All-Star Game consideration before he fractured his hand in an off-the-field incident. Maldonado took over and established himself, batting a solid .274 in June with five home runs and 14 RBIs while playing his usually solid brand of defense.
They are the Brewers' best homegrown catchers since Mike Matheny and Dave Nilsson played together in the late 1990s, and it's up to Roenicke to find a way to keep both of them sharp.
"To have two guys that we know can start every day, that's really nice, and it's tough," Roenicke said. "If I have to play one catcher more than the other, then it's too bad for that other guy. But that's kind of the way I need to do it."
Roenicke said results, both at the plate and in terms of pitchers' ERAs, would help him formulate playing time decisions.
"There's a healthy competition, but there's no rivalry," Lucroy said. "This is a team, and we're all going toward one goal."
That "team" mentality is probably one of the reasons Lucroy did all he could to speed Maldonado's transition to the Majors last May, when the Brewers were already in the midst of their midseason struggles.
But it was also personal for Lucroy.
In 2010, when the Brewers faced a conundrum after Gregg Zaun suffered a season-ending injury, they promoted Lucroy, who was 23 and had played all of 21 games above Double-A. Four days later, manager Ken Macha installed Lucroy as the starter over George Kottaras.
"I was learning a lot of things on my own," Lucroy said. "Maybe this is a stupid comparison, but it's like as a kid when your mom tells you not to touch the burner. And you touch it. That's how you learn.
"Sometimes trial by fire like that is a good thing. You have to learn how to deal with stuff and get over it."
He made a point to help Maldonado avoid touching the burner. Lucroy offered tips on the Brewers' video scouting system, something Lucroy says he had to ask pitchers about back in 2010. He shared scouting reports before games and shared observations between innings.
"He told me, 'I want you to have something I didn't have,'" Maldonado said. "It's not everybody that would do that."
Both of Milwaukee's catchers will depart camp next month to participate in the World Baseball Classic, Lucroy for the U.S. and Maldonado for Puerto Rico. Maldonado will work with two of the Molina brothers -- Yadier and Jose -- and called it "a great opportunity to learn even more." Lucroy will share catching duties with Americans Joe Mauer and J.P. Arencibia.
Those departures will open opportunity in Brewers camp for a slew of nonroster invitees vying for jobs in the system. Among them are Blake Lalli, who played briefly last season for the Cubs, and Dayton Buller, an organizational soldier who has appeared at Triple-A Nashville in each of the last two seasons. The Brewers are also considering adding Robinzon Diaz to big league camp, a 29-year-old who has seen big league action with the Pirates and Blue Jays.
When Lucroy and Maldonado return, they will be leaned on to help lead a more inexperienced Brewers pitching staff than they handled last season.
"If we can help them through some tough times, it's going to make us much better down the line," Lucroy said. "So I'm looking forward to it."