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23 Dec

Where Do We Go From Here? 2012.5 The Future Catcher (by W.C.G.)

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.

  25-29     30-32     33-34  
Gary Carter .818 .830 .671
Lance Parrish .784 .725 .744
Ivan Rodriguez .902 .876 .752
Mike Piazza .990 .967 .881
Javy Lopez .849 .842 .835
Jorge Posada .838 .880 .824
Jason Kendall .793 .721 .631
Jason Varitek .776 .819 .799

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.

55 Responses to “Where Do We Go From Here? 2012.5 The Future Catcher (by W.C.G.)”

  1. 1
    mark grogan Says:

    W.C.G. I enjoyed the heck out of that, thank you. The writing talent around here is astounding.

    I think Wren’s big board with the 4 years of future rosters has McCann at catcher each time.

  2. 2
    Mikemc Says:

    Actually I bet Prado would be a pretty good catcher.

  3. 3
    Tomas Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed that post, W.C.G. Well done.

    It really is cross-everything-that-can-be-crossed and pray that McCann regains his form with a healthier shoulder isn’t it.

  4. 4
    Alex Remington (Another Alex R.) Says:

    I really enjoyed this post. But, to me, it seems like if Gattis can catch then there’s your answer. There are so many more corner outfielders than catchers in the world that I’d let Gattis catch a bit this year just to make sure he can do it as a major leaguer, then let Mac walk and name Gattis the first-stringer. If he can catch, then that’s where his greatest value lies, I think.

  5. 5
    Kevin Lee Says:

    Good write-up, especially the punch line!

    Hard to imagine McCann in another uniform. Here’s hoping for strong comeback year.

    Go Braves!

  6. 6
    Kevin Lee Says:

    R.I.P. Ryan Freel.
    Loved watching him play with the Reds fans in my family.

  7. 7
    Remy Says:

    Basically, we’re hoping Gattis is another Javy Lopez.

  8. 8
    Sam Hutcheson Says:

    If Gattis can handle catcher, you slap him down at catcher and go buy a real LF on the market.

  9. 9
    Stu Says:

    Bravo, Charlie!

  10. 10
    Parish Says:

    I was wishing they would wait on the McCann option, to have leverage on a 3 to 4-year deal. I think he will be back to form, but I am not sure we will afford the full free agent price.

    Bethancourt is 2-3 years away if he can overcome his offensive issues. And I think Gattis can field the position, but we will want his bat and body at a less taxing position.

    I guess we will have to wait on McCann and hope for a hometown discount.

    I loved the last line of this write-up, wcg.

  11. 11
    AA Says:

    Maybe it’s just me but for some reason Gattis reminds me of Tyler Flowers. Even his defensive reviews are similar.

  12. 12
    Johnny Says:

    Excellent W.C.G.

    #4, 8 – I agree. I would give Gattis a shot as early as this coming spring training. Hell, even if he hits just a little he’ll be better than Laird offensively. The best outcome is we BMac comes back to being BMac and we find out that Gattis is the real deal as a hitter and doesn’t suck too bad at catching.

    @8 – Why can we NOT seem to find a damn left fielder? Its frustrating.

  13. 13
    csg Says:

    Nice write up.

    Offer Delgado, spruill, bethancourt, + mid level prospect for Upton. Put Gattis behind the plate in Gwinnett for 2014.

  14. 14
    Tomas Says:

    With the way free agent prices seem to have gone nuts, it feels like any LF will have to somehow miraculously come from the farm system or more likely a trade.

    Swisher got what sounds like essentially 5 years at 14 million per, which is just crazy.

  15. 15
    Bethany Says:

    @13 YES PLEASE

  16. 16
    ububba Says:

    Nice work.

    Merry Xmas/Happy Holidays to all!

  17. 17
    W.C.G. Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, guys. Trying to do my part to help keep Mac’s old house in good order.

    So much hinges on two things: whether Gattis can hit MLB pitching and whether McCann comes back healthy. We’ll find out both this year. Which is probably why, @10, they didn’t give him the 3-4 year deal just now. If he’s not right, that’s dead money to a club that can’t afford dead money.

    But hopefully he is right, and hopefully Wren can slot him in at a reasonable salary rather than take his chances at Free Agent Left Fielder Roulette. Last time we played that game we got Uncle Garret’s Sleepytime Jamboree.

  18. 18
    csg Says:

    Gattis hit #16 today

  19. 19
    Parish Says:

    18 – I’m a believer!

  20. 20
    kc Says:

    Great work WCG!

    I still think the Braves should go ahead and extend McCann now at a cheaper rate. I don’t have much concern on whether he will be able to recover from his injury. I am very comfortable giving him a three-year extension now.

    We should use Bethancourt as trade bait now when he still has some value. Otherwise, he will be a fine cheap backup catching option when Laird’s contract is up.

  21. 21
    kc Says:

    @18 Ideally, Gattis will become our everyday leftfielder and we use the spare money to start resigning Prado and giving long contracts to Heyward and Medlen.

  22. 22
    JoeCraigMcMurtry Says:

    Gattis also doubled and singled. OPS up to .960. If he sticks around for the playoffs he is likely to win the league MVP. Aguila clinched a playoff spot, and this pic is making the rounds on twitter:

    https://twitter.com/CarlosGCB/status/283013770308091906/photo/1

  23. 23
    gaz Says:

    Solid job bro. Though I’m not necessarily sure that the argument is just whether you can find reasonable production out of just your catcher position or whether or not the 14 million can be used to improve your team more in other areas. If your objective is to just find the best catcher possible then probably McCann is your guy, but your objective should be to create the best roster possible. If that 14 million can be used somewhere else and you get one of those serviceable rentals that may be a better option.

    I’m not saying it definitely will be, I just don’t think you should pigeon hole yourself into a position of getting the best catcher possible. It relates to the argument Jonah Keri made after the Myers – Shields trade which was not necessarily a horrible trade but showed a lack of imagination on the Royals part by just trying to find a specific type of player. It will be interesting to see what options are available in 2014 but it shouldn’t just be a question of only the catcher.

  24. 24
    JoeCraigMcMurtry Says:

    Another photograph from today’s game, or, a powerful dude with a sweet, sweet swing:

    https://twitter.com/CarlosGCB/status/282967687062237184/photo/1

  25. 25
    JoeCraigMcMurtry Says:

    Zulia fans would be scratching their heads at the thought of a team trading for Gerardo Parra to play left field when they already had an Evan Gattis.

    Parra’s stats for Zulia this season:

    .285/.343/.408/.750 with 30/11 K/BB in 130 ABs. More or less in line with what he has done in previous VWL seasons.

    If we are trading for a left fielder and it’s not Upton, I don’t see the point.

  26. 26
    jjschiller Says:

    Middle of the order offense will cost more from a catcher than it will from a LF.

    With the money a .840 OPS at catcher will cost on the open market, you can probably afford an .840 OPS at LF with enough money left to pay a bench bat.

    And, for example, last year, that would have been the difference between Matt Diaz and Cody Ross.

    So in that case, I say let him walk.

    In my opinion, this calculus is effected in two ways: 1.) If you don’t allow him to actually REACH the open market, in other words, you get a home town discount. Or 2.) If you’ve got the offensive production coming from LF already, or, can pay the premium for the offense at catcher and still afford to go buy the offense at LF.

    This has not been the case in Atlanta.

    People rightly point to the trading away of Adam Laroche as the reason we ultimately gutted the farm system to acquire Mark Texeira.

    I put it to you that the only reason we TRADED Adam Laroche, is because we had a 22 year old catcher who’d just 500 PA’s of a .961 OPS. The team figured “We’ve got a catcher who hits like a 1B. Let’s turn the 1B in to some pitching and roll the dice. The guy (in this case Thorman) only has to hit like an average catcher for us to break even.”

    Didn’t work out that way.

    I think if they’d treated this offensive production from catcher as a bonus, instead of as a get-out-of-jail-free card, they might have won a championship during his stay here.

  27. 27
    W.C.G. Says:

    @23, 26: I probably should have discussed the “stick Gattis behind the plate and use the cost savings to pay someone on the market” scenario in greater detail. I wasn’t in favor of it – at least in the free agent setting – because it seems to me like every player who would be an upgrade over McCann’s production would also cost significantly more than I’m projecting McCann would.

    Look at the list of outfield free agents this year to set the market. Our own B.J. Upton (who I know we’re paying for defense as well) is an offensive downgrade from McCann but costs comparably; Swisher’s about even but got paid through his age-37; Granderson’s better, but based on the Yankees picking up a $15MM club option, he’s looking at a big deal on the open market; Hamilton is out of our league. Ross got paid less, but is worse.

    Here’s next year’s free agent list:
    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2012/02/2014-mlb-free-agents.html

    It’s not that good. Re-signing Prado is the biggest priority in that pool, but you can do that by renouncing Hudson, who will be 39 by then with Teheran/Delgado/Gilmartin/whoever waiting in the wings. There’s no one on that list that you can really say would produce more than a healthy McCann for a comparable cost.

    The great variable is the trade market, and clearly you never know with that and I don’t even try to predict it, but unless a Justin Upton drops into your lap, I think this is the analysis they have to make going into the offseason next year. Stockpiling “cap room” for its own sake just tends to leave teams disappointed/desperate.

  28. 28
    W.C.G. Says:

    Also, I think a great use of Gattis (assuming he’s all that at the big league level) would be in a hybrid primary LF/backup C role. The Braves tend to give the backup C about 150-200 PA per year, and I think we’d get much greater value out of that if Gattis were allotted those than if Laird got them.

    Assuming you’ve still got Prado around, you could stock the bench with pure pinch-hitters because McCann/Gattis/Francisco could cover for Prado in any sort of super-utility situation where he backs up SS or 2B. Thus, you don’t have to waste spots on those Jack Wilson “because he can play the infield” types. There’s even room on that type of roster for Bethancourt as a third catcher/defensive replacement, if you really want.

  29. 29
    csg Says:

    Until the Braves decide that Bethancourt will just be a defensive guy, I think he’ll continue to get reps in AAA everyday. I do think Gattis would provide a lot of value to this team if he shows he can hit MLB pitching. I dont see why he wouldnt be able to. Id rather have pure hitters on the bench compared to the Pagnozzi, Constanza, Janish, Pena, Schafer types that we are possibly using right now.

  30. 30
    Alex Remington (Another Alex R.) Says:

    I think the answer is going to have to be a trade for a guy like Kubel. I don’t think we’ll be able to fill that through a trade.

  31. 31
    csg Says:

    I guess I dont understand why Arizona would sign Ross to trade Kubel. Unless they just thought they were too LH’d in their lineup and they wanted to get max value for Kubel. I still think Arizona trades Upton or Parra after this move. Id take Parra just because he can play all 3 OF positions, but Id still rather see what Gattis can do in LF at this point before just giving Parra the spot.

  32. 32
    justhank Says:

    “He’s El Oso Blanco, not El Unicornio Rosa.” – classic, dude.

    Question: what is it about Upton that the Diamondbacks don’t like? I just don’t get the disconnect (but I’m not in that market so it may be similar in a way to Atlantan’s issues with Joe Johnson).

  33. 33
    Mikemc Says:

    If Teheran comes through this year, and Beachy returns to his old form, could the Braves consider trading Hudson at the deadline?

  34. 34
    justhank Says:

    @31 – Gattis is making it easier and easier for Wren to stand pat. Beginning to think that’s the wisest path.
    —————-

    Really hate to say this, but SEC Basketball sucks this year.
    —————-

    The ball movement this Hawks team exhibits is refreshing. Although Josh Smith seems to think that because Joe Johnson was traded, we now need to run the Iso-Josh every other play.

  35. 35
    Alex Remington (Another Alex R.) Says:

    I think that Arizona is disappointed by Upton because they basically thought he’d be an MVP by now. They set overly high expectations and have basically blamed him for not living up to them.

    That’s my basic assumption, which I wrote about here: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/bj-upton-justin-upton-phenoms-disappointments-now-what/

  36. 36
    justhank Says:

    Excellent piece, Alex. (Those people are mean over there, aren’t they?)

    Does kinda make me suspicious of WAR (or D-Backs management).

    Question: would having both on the same team be good or bad for them?

  37. 37
    Adam R Says:

    Dbacks management seem to go out of their way to dislike their own players.

  38. 38
    Alex Remington (Another Alex R.) Says:

    I think it’d be good for them to be on the same team: they seem to have a good relationship as brothers. Most of all, though, I think they just both need a change of scenery. I think they need to be in a place where they aren’t crippled by prior expectations and are simply appreciated by the fans for what they can do.

  39. 39
    csg Says:

    #33-If Teheran comes through this year, and Beachy returns to his old form, could the Braves consider trading Hudson at the deadline?

    10/5 rights. Huddy would block any deal and I dont think the Braves would do it anyways. I dont think you would want Medlen, Beachy, Minor, Teheran, and Maholm trying to get through the playoffs. Huddy is really the only veteran with playoff experience. I could see Maholm on the block at the deadline though.

  40. 40
    Remy Says:

    Maybe Gattis will be more like Earl Williams?

  41. 41
    jjschiller Says:

    I have no rational reason to believe this, but my fear with Gattis is that he’ll be Rock Ankiel. Plenty of athleticism to fake it til he makes it, but lack of development time prevents him from putting it together at the highest level.

    But, hell, Gattis only has about a hundred fewer MiL ABs than Heyward had, so what do I know.

  42. 42
    JoeCraigMcMurtry Says:

    Even with 195 at bats in winter league, Gattis still has less than a full season of ABs this year, but the numbers are staggering:

    467 ABs, 29(2Bs), 4(3B), 34 HR, 73/47 K/BB, OPS .980.

    Imagine if a 22 year old put up those numbers in a single season across A+/AA/AAA. My gut tells me that Gattis is going to make a lot of pundits look dumb. I would argue that the likelihood that he won’t hit at the major league level is becoming so increasingly small that Wren has to assume that he will hit well better than a league-average catcher in 2014. Meaning if Wren acquires a full time LF/3B for this year he needs to make Gattis the full time catcher at AAA this year and be ready to let McCann walk.

  43. 43
    jjschiller Says:

    Yes, Rock Ankiel.

  44. 44
    Smitty Says:

    Merry Christmas Eve

  45. 45
    csg Says:

    #42 – Exactly. One of these two needs to take place

    1. Wren finds a trade for Upton or Willingham and then puts Gattis behind the plate at Gwinnett until 2014.

    2. Wren gives Gattis the LF job out of Spring Training. If it fails you play the combo of Johnson/Fransisco/Prado rotation until a trade piece can be located.

    If Gattis works out in LF then the Braves can make a decision on Bmac/Bethancourt next offseason.

  46. 46
    csg Says:

    I am much more excited about seeing Gattis in LF next year than I am about seeing Fransisco at 3B.

  47. 47
    c. shorter Says:

    Thanks to Bethany, I’ve had the tune of “Luis Avilan” in my head all day.

    Here’s to wishing you all a Luis Avilan and a prospero año e felicidad.

  48. 48
    Bethany Says:

    *evil laughter*

  49. 49
    Johnny Says:

    Merry Christmas everyone!

  50. 50
    kc Says:

    @35. Although not exactly the same case, seems like Upton brothers are just receiving the Andruw treatment…why was he not a HOFer?

    As Mac would say, let’s not get too excited by winter league or spring training stats. Tyler Flowers also had a great winter before he was traded.

  51. 51
    td Says:

    Ryan Freel apparently committed suicide. The article I read tried to establish a relationship between his concussions (about 10 apparently) and depression. Given his history of alcohol and possible mental issues, I don’t see the concussions as being the major contributor. Whatever the case, it’s very sad!

  52. 52
    Sam Hutcheson Says:

    It would be foolish to write Tyler Flowers off as a player just yet.

    There is nothing in Evan Gattis’ performance profile to date to suggest that he wouldn’t be a quality major leaguer in 2013. Maybe not a 900 OPS star, but certainly an interesting and useful player.

  53. 53
    PaulV Says:

    @51 I knew Ray Easterling from the gym 20 years ago. His story was very sad.

  54. 54
    sansho1 Says:

    Thank you, Mac. Thank you, Alex. Peace and happiness, everyone.

  55. 55
    Alex Remington (Another Alex R.) Says:

    New thread.

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