Perhaps a more accurate title of this post would be “Should The Braves Pay Brian McCann?”
There’s not much more to be said about Brian McCann that you don’t already know. From 2006- 2011, you could pencil him into the All-Star game and the middle of the Braves’ lineup. You could expect an OPS in the .840 neighborhood, and you could go worry about something else. In 2012, he experienced a series of injuries and fell all the way to a .300 OBP and a .399 SLG. In 2013, he’ll miss the first couple months of the season after shoulder surgery and make $13 million in his walk year.
Picking up the 2013 option as a make-good year was the right move for the 2013 Braves, but it sets up a big decision for 2014 and beyond. When BMac is right, he’s one of the best offensive catchers in baseball and the face of the post-Chipper franchise. When he’s not, he’s… OK. You can live with a .700 OPS from your catcher, but not when he represents about one-sixth of your team payroll. If he comes back this summer and seems to be in physical decline, it would be hard to justify the a long-term investment, even if the Dodgers or Angels or Yankees can afford to pay him first and ask questions later.
But if McCann comes back strong, the good news is that the market for free agent catchers in his comparable range (like Mike Napoli and Yadier Molina) seems to be three-to-five year deals at about $13-15 million per season. I say this is good news because the annual cost is already mostly baked into the Braves’ payroll structure as of 2013, and the recent history of offensively gifted catchers seems to suggest a strong probability that if the physical problems aren’t chronic,then he’s likely to continue performing at a high level through (at least most of) the life of the deal.
2014 will be McCann’s age-30 season. A three-year deal would take him through his age-32 season, and a five-year deal would take him through his age-34. As a quick-and-dirty calculation, I looked at the average annual OPS of recent top offensive catchers, first through their age 25-29 seasons, then their age 30-32 seasons, then finally age 33-34.
This is back-of-the-envelope, small-sample-size math that can’t account for factors like the role steroids may have played in the longevity of past catchers’ careers, but at a broad level it seems to stand for a proposition that 30-32 are pretty good offensive years to wager paying a top catcher for, and if you have to pay for 33-34 along the way, it probably won’t kill you. And defensively, I’d expect McCann to age well because his defensive strengths are pitch framing and game calling, not athleticism and/or a cannon arm.
But say McCann’s physical problems seem too chronic for comfort, or the Dodgers or someone with cash to burn (Astros, maybe?) blow the market up with a Joe Mauer-type Godfather offer. What options do we have from there?
First, the in-house. Christian “Lisp II” Bethancourt raised some eyebrows in 2009 by slugging .446 as a 17-year-old in rookie ball, but his progression since has been disappointing. In the past two years, he’s posted an OPS of .603 in High-A and .566 in AA. And if we’re using winter league performance to get excited about Evan Gattis’ and Juan Francisco’s potential, it’s worth noting that Bethancourt is hitting .224/.246/.276 for Licey.
Bethancourt was added to the 40-man roster recently, but he’s not a major-league ready player in 2013, and it’s very unlikely that he will be in 2014. He’s got a cannon arm, but as I noted in discussing McCann’s defense, raw tools don’t directly correlate to saving runs at catcher the way they do at shortstop.
Speaking of Evan Gattis, catcher is his original position. El Oso Blanco has split time between left and catcher in his last two minor league seasons in an effort to make him a more flexible option in the majors. This winter, Zulia have used him only at LF and DH. This may be a sign that the Braves see him as an outfielder in the long run; conversely, it may just be an effort to get him more work at a position he’s still learning.
As far as it goes, the Braves appear to believe that even if he doesn’t have Bethancourt’s throwing arm — very few catching prospects do — Gattis could be okay behind the plate. Here’s what DOB wrote in November:
He’s not a bad catcher, and Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez and roving catching instructor Joe Breeden rave about his work habits and desire to improve behind the plate. But Gattis might only be adequate defensively at catcher.
When DOB writes that he “might only be adequate defensively,” it’s fair to assume that people on the team see him as “adequate defensively.” Of course, even if Gattis is the answer at catcher, there’s still a question mark in left, and vice versa; he can’t be the answer to both problems. He’s El Oso Blanco, not El Unicornio Rosa.
The rest of the minor league system is not very promising. The high minors are populated by Crash Davis types and 24-year-old non-prospects. Besides Bethancourt, there’s not a whole lot in the organization except for the potential intrigue of Josh Elander, who the Braves drafted out of TCU last summer and who hit .260/.366/.439 in 145 Appalachian League plate appearances. It’s not much of a sample to go on, but he’s more worth keeping an eye on than anyone else in the system.
McCann will be by far the class of the 2013-14 offseason’s free agents; the best of the rest are John Buck, 38-year-old Jose Molina, 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz, our old friend Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Geovany Soto. You might find a rental in this group, but you won’t find an answer.
If he’s right physically by the end of the season, bringing McCann back on a deal somewhere between the Napoli (3/$39MM) and Yadier Molina (5/$75MM) contracts should be the team’s priority, because there’s just not very much else out there, in-house or external. Gattis may be the most promising of the Plan Bs, but that assumes that a) he can hit MLB pitching, which we don’t know yet, and b) Wren can find a competent left fielder on the open market, which he’s never done.
Of course, if all else fails, the Braves could probably solve the problem the way they solve all other thorny roster issues: just tell Prado to learn the position.