After battling through a shoulder injury during a disappointing 2012 season, Braves catcher Brian McCann has returned to form this year and has put himself in position to become one of the highest-paid catchers in baseball this upcoming offseason.
The Georgia native, who was Atlanta's second-round draft pick back in 2012, has spent his entire nine-year major league career with the team—he's been an All-Star seven times—and could be one of the rare players to finish his career with one team...if the Braves can lock him up to a long-term deal. At this point, however, that scenario appears bleak unless McCann is willing to take a hometown discount.
Multi-Year Contract Estimate
While he won't come close to Twins catcher Joe Mauer's eight-year, $187 million deal or the nine-year, $167 million deal that Giants catcher Buster Posey received prior to this season, the 29-year-old McCann should surpass Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero's five year, $60 million contract and land a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of the five-year, $75 million contract that Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (pictured) received in March 2012.
Even if he fell just short of what Molina received, McCann is almost a lock to get $70 million total from 2014 through 2018, his age 30-34 seasons. Considering his track record of consistent success—he's had an OPS over .800 in six of his eight full seasons with at least 18 homers in each of those eight seasons—to go along with a strong ability to lead a pitching staff and solid overall defense, giving that kind of money to McCann isn't much of a risk.
The ability for an American League team to utilize him in a designated hitter role a couple times per week, however, over the next few seasons while possibly increasing that trend as he approaches the tail end of the contract certainly makes it a less riskier investment than it would be for the Braves or any other National League team.
Atlanta's Offseason Spending Ability
Atlanta's payroll heading into the season was approximately $90,000,000, according to Baseball Prospectus, and they could have some flexibility heading into the offseason with McCann ($12 million salary in 2013) and fellow free agents Tim Hudson ($9 million salary in 2013), Paul Maholm ($6.5 million salary in 2013) and Eric O'Flaherty ($4.32 million salary in 2013) coming off the books.
They do, however, have several high profile players eligible for arbitration with Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson and Kris Medlen due for hefty raises and Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Jordan Walden due to earn multi-million dollar salaries for the first time. Justin Upton's salary will also jump $4.5 million next season while the disappointing B.J. Upton will make $1 million more in 2014 than he did this season.
Factoring in the expected salary increases, the Braves might be able to afford McCann at $14 million per season if they bumped up their 2014 payroll slightly. But unless they were willing to boost it into the $105-$110 million range—they spent approximately $106 million on payroll in 2003, the highest in team history—general manager Fran Wren could have a tough time doing much else.
But if the front office believes enough in the young starting pitching already in the majors—the projected 2014 rotation includes Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Alex Wood—and the pitching depth in the upper minors—J.R. Graham, Sean Gilmartin, Cody Martin and Gus Schlosser could form a very strong Triple-A rotation in 2014—there might not be a need to add another expensive player in free agency.
Potential Suitors With Deep Pockets
With every team that has a potential need at the catcher position, Atlanta's chances to retain McCann decrease. And the timing probably couldn't be any worse for the Braves. Excluding the teams that aren't likely to dish out the kind of money it would take to sign McCann, there are still several potential landing spots.
The Blue Jays (J.P. Arencibia/Josh Thole), Cubs (Welington Castillo), Dodgers (A.J. Ellis), Phillies (Erik Kratz), Rangers (Robinson Chirinos), Red Sox (David Ross/Ryan Lavarnway), White Sox (Tyler Flowers/Josh Phegley) and Yankees (Chris Stewart/Austin Romine) are teams that could likely afford McCann and would view him as a significant upgrade over their current projected option, which is listed in parentheses.
Teams like the Dodgers and Red Sox would be particularly tough to compete against because of their spending ability. The healthy state of each of their rosters heading into the offseason could also be a factor. Neither team has more than a hole or two to fill, thus the possibility that McCann could become either team's top priority. If this is the case, the Braves probably won't have a chance.
McCann's Heir Apparent(s)
How much effort the Braves put into re-signing McCann could depend on how highly they think of Evan Gattis (pictured) and Christian Bethancourt, the team's two potential in-house starting options for 2014.
While they probably wouldn't miss a beat offensively with Gattis (.815 OPS, 19 HR, 57 RBI in 89 games) stepping into the everyday lineup, he's not considered a strong defensive catcher. The 27-year-old has been good enough, however, for the Braves to trust him with 34 starts behind the plate this season.
He's also thrown out seven of 22 attempted base stealers and has very likely learned a lot by watching McCann and working with veteran backup Gerald Laird, not to mention manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was a minor league catcher in the Yankees' organization for several years, and bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who spent 11 seasons as a backup catcher in the big leagues.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 22-year-old Bethancourt is one of the best defensive catchers in the minors with an ability to completely shut down an opposing team's running game. But unless he makes huge strides with the bat this offseason, the drop-off from McCann to Bethancourt would be tough to overcome.
To his credit, Bethancourt did improve greatly at the plate from 2012 (.566 OPS, 2 HR in 71 Double-A games) to 2013 (.741 OPS, 12 HR in 90 Double-A games). While that's a nice step in the right direction, Bethancourt still has a ways to go with the bat and asking him to learn on the job while trying to handle a young pitching staff on a playoff-caliber ball club is probably too much to ask.
Most Likely Scenario
Whether it's the Dodgers or Red Sox or some other team with the financial wherewithal that decides to make McCann their top priority, it's likely that the Braves will not be the highest bidder. And while a hometown discount—think $11-12 million per season instead of $14-16 million—is a possibility and McCann would be a very rich man either way, some players don't like to take discounts on the basis that it affects the earning power for future free agents.
Texas might have the biggest need with both of their catchers, A.J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto, headed for free agency, but he may not be their top priority with holes in the rotation and possibly a bigger need at the corner outfield spot.
Boston is my predicted landing spot for McCann, who'd reunite with Ross, who served as his backup in Atlanta from 2009-2012. The Sox still have plenty of payroll flexibility, which was created by last year's blockbuster deal with the Dodgers, and a need with starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia eligible for free agency. Aside from possibly trying to re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury, they are unlikely to be very involved with upgrading any other areas of their roster. McCann could end up being their top priority, which would be bad news for his other suitors.
Atlanta, in the meantime, would move on to Plan B. With Laird under contract for one more season, expect him to continue serving as Gattis' tutor with Bethancourt (pictured) waiting in the wings down in Triple-A in case Gattis struggles in an everyday role behind the plate. If all goes well with Gattis, Bethancourt would get another much-needed full season of at-bats in the minors with a chance to take over the regular job in 2015.