With Chipper Jones' final game played and Michael Bourn's contract expired, the primary focus of the Braves offseason has been replacing these cornerstones of the Atlanta offense.
It's been a foregone conclusion that this offseason would be the one where Chipper handed the reins over to fan favorite Brian McCann as leader of the club.
But what if Atlanta didn't bring McCann back for the 2013 campaign?
Maybe it sounds absurd cutting ties with him; for nearly a decade, McCann has been not only integral but also a beloved cog of the Braves machine, providing excellent offense from the catcher position in addition to his duties as battery-mate.
It may be time to bid him farewell though.
The veteran backstop, who is entering his age-29 season, will demand a $12 million option to be brought back for the 2013 season. That's $12 million for an injury-riddled catcher who just underwent shoulder surgery and could be out anywhere from April to June.
Assuming the worst-case scenario plays out and McCann misses the first two months of the season, is $12 million worth it for four months (five if Atlanta makes the playoffs) from McCann?
It depends on which McCann the Braves would be getting. I would definitely shell out $12 million for the 2006-2011 version of Brian McCann who averaged an .850 OPS.
But what if McCann's 2012 injury-marred season disguised actual regression? He has logged a lot of innings behind the plate in his career, and in order to preserve his bat, he'll need to move to first base.
Except in Atlanta, this is about as possible as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. You see, 23-year-old Freddie Freeman mans first for the Braves, and a drop in batting average masked the very real improvements (rise in walk rate, drop in strikeout rate) he made on his offensive game in 2012. He, along with Jason Heyward, could hit in the heart of the Braves order for the next 15 years.
So what do you do with an offensively talented player approaching free agency (2014) in need of rehab and a position change?
Atlanta could re-sign him for 2013 and figure out what to do at the catcher position for the next few years until 21-year-old prospect Christian Bethancourt is ready for the big leagues.
Bethancourt is a simply amazing defensive prospect, but seemingly doesn't know how to take a walk, getting on base at a .275 clip in Double-A Mississippi in 2012 despite a .243 batting average. The talent is there for Bethancourt; he will simply need to refine his offensive approach.
McCann could also be signed and traded, be it this offseason or at the 2013 trade deadline. I don't particularly see this as likely, though, for if Atlanta goes into next season with McCann penciled in at catcher, the Braves will probably end it with McCann at catcher unless they are out of playoff contention by the deadline.
The buyout on McCann's contract makes this situation become all the more interesting, though.
The price? $500,000.
Buying out McCann's contract would make an intriguing Braves offseason absolutely fascinating, as $12 million more would be freed up. And the Braves could do a lot with $12 million.
First of all, Atlanta could lock up Heyward and Freeman for the long term and ensure that the Braves would be built around the right components. Buying out their arbitration years and then some could save the Braves a significant amount of money when it comes to the contracts of these young stars.
With $12 million freed up, Atlanta could also begin shopping Dan Uggla, dangling him with the possibility of eating some of his salary. If the price is right, Atlanta could be rid of Uggla's contract.
If the Braves decide to keep Uggla, the extra $12 million for 2013 could be allocated on the free agent market. Center fielders such as these could be given more competitive offers, and perhaps Michael Bourn could even be brought back.
If Atlanta goes with a low-cost option in center field (such as trading for Ben Revere), then bigger contracts such as David Wright (a complete long shot, but he must at least be considered) and Nick Swisher can be entertained. It is unlikely that Atlanta would obtain either player, but it is an option that is opened up if the McCann Band-Aid is ripped off a year early.
The problem with cutting ties with McCann, though, lies in the question of who would replace McCann as primary Braves catcher for the short term. Sparse isn't quite strong enough a word to describe the dearth of free-agent catchers.
Russell Martin is an option if the Yankees decide to go with Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine moving forward, but he'll have to bounce back from his .311 OBP this year.
AJ Pierzynski is a solid option, but the White Sox figure to re-sign him. Carlos Ruiz's option will definitely get picked up as well. Mike Napoli would be a fun signing, but at what price?
Miguel Olivo and Gerald Laird is available, but they're hardly options to start. Yorvit Torrealba and Kelly Shoppach are intriguing as part-time options to platoon with David Ross, as they both supply high OBPs and Shoppach comes with a lot of power in his bat.
Not an especially intriguing group, is it? One would almost rather give David Ross 400 at-bats, which is also an option.
The trade market is also a setting to pick up the stopgap between McCann and Bethancourt. Atlanta could go after Minnesota's Ryan Doumit, Seattle's John Jaso, Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia, or Toronto's JP Arencibia.
I would actually be a proponent to go after this group over anyone that free agency has to offer, considering Doumit's balanced bat, Saltalamacchia and Arencibia's pop, and Jaso's incredible on-base skills.
In fact, Jaso (a left-hander) would be in many ways the perfect complement to Ross (a right-hander), and I would advocate making the acquisition of John Jaso a top priority if Atlanta should cut ties with McCann.
In case you need a summation...
Brian McCann might not have much of a future in Atlanta. He's approaching 30 years old, he's been plagued with injuries lately, and he might be headed for a position change in a couple years. Like Victor Martinez, he will likely be better off splitting time at catcher, first base and DH. Unfortunately, Atlanta cannot supply him either the first base position or the DH spot.
McCann is getting increasingly expensive, and the costs are starting to outweigh the benefits here. Free agency for him is a year away, and with Christian Bethancourt waiting in the wings, Atlanta will not be able to offer McCann a long-term contract.
If ties were cut with McCann, Atlanta would be able to allocate the money from his 2013 salary in more efficient and productive ways, such as locking up Heyward and Freeman past their arbitration years, and filling the holes in center field, left field and third base.
If done right, this not only frees Atlanta up considerably for the future, but the Braves have a shot to have a more balanced and productive lineup in 2013 as well.
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