Brian McCann underwent shoulder surgery Tuesday and is expected to miss four to six months. This came at an awkward moment for both player and club. The Braves have until three days after the World Series ends to exercise their option to keep McCann for the 2013 season at $12 million. Should they decline, McCann would become a free agent.
To allow McCann to walk away — it’s doubtful he would be responsive to any Braves’ overture to re-sign at a lower price — is within the Braves’ contractual rights. Letting him leave, however, would not be in their best immediate interests.
Even as we stipulate that the McCann of the past 15 months has been a shadow of the man who made the All-Star team six years running, we must also acknowledge that, assuming a return to health, he’s an above-average catcher. The worthy backup David Ross notwithstanding, the Braves will need a No. 1 catcher in 2013.
Asked Wednesday if McCann’s surgery will affect the Braves’ choice, general manager Frank Wren said via phone: “It’s not a topic I’m discussing. We have three guys who have options, and we never discuss the decision to pick up an option until the deadline date.”
Which makes corporate sense: Why say anything until you’re required to say it? But there seems no compelling reason not to keep McCann for one year more, and no, to answer the next question, saving $12 million isn’t reason enough.
There are times when it might have been. The Braves traded Javier Vazquez, who’d finished fourth in the National League Cy Young balloting, in December 2009 because they weren’t crazy about paying another $11.5 million. This offseason is different. Chipper Jones retired, taking his $14 million salary with him. Derek Lowe’s partially offloaded contract is expiring, so that’s another $10 million. Jair Jurrjens, whose career fizzle is the strangest this franchise has seen since Nick Esasky got vertigo, is surely gone, and that’s $5.5 million. Michael Bourn, who made $6.8 million in 2012, is expected to demand nearly three times that in free agency, and it’s unlikely the Braves will meet his price.
Besides, the Braves had always planned to keep McCann through 2013, so it’s not as if this $12 million catches them by surprise. In sum, this is the first time since Liberty Media bought the club that money is less an object.
That’s the financial side. As for the physical: Catchers tend to age fast, and McCann hasn’t been nearly as good lately. (He was benched for the Braves’ one and only postseason game, a move once unthinkable.) Some of his decline — according to Baseball-Reference.com, McCann’s wins-over-replacement number this past season was a tepid 0.6; Dan Uggla’s was 2.7 — can be traced to injury. But how much?
That’s surely what the Braves will spend 2013 trying to determine. There will be no option attached to McCann next fall. Either he’s re-signed to a new contract or he’s a free agent. For a team that has reason to question the wisdom of re-upping the 30-year-old Uggla for five years at $62 million, the matter of what to do with a catcher who’s approaching 30 will be even more problematic.
On the one hand, McCann has been a great servant — really good player, really good teammate, really good guy. On the other, he’ll be a catcher approaching 30, and with the younger Freddie Freeman at first base there’s no other positional landing spot. McCann’s best bet, at least monetarily, might be to look to the American League, where he could double as a designated hitter.
By autumn 2013, the Braves also will have a better feel for Christian Bethancourt, who’s 21 and ranked by MLB.com as the organization’s No. 2 prospect. Bethancourt isn’t ready — he hit .243 with an on-base percentage of .275 in Class AA and broke his left hand to boot — but he’s considered such a good defender that he stands to get a big-league look soon.
Ultimately the Braves will face the decision: To stick with the older and more expensive McCann, or to tap the younger and cheaper Bethancourt as the new No. 1? If McCann doesn’t return to form in 2012, the answer will be obvious. If he does, nothing will be obvious.
One year after losing Chipper, a B-Mac exit would be tough to take. That said, the quickest way to clog a payroll is to keep players who don’t figure to be half as good by the time their contracts lapse. Given that McCann isn’t yet 29, the Braves have every reason to bet $12 million that he’ll be better next year. The tougher call will be when they have to ask (and they will soon): How good will Brian McCann be at 34?
By Mark Bradley