Following a season in which their catchers ranked 26th in baseball with a 61 wRC+ and 23rd with 0.9 fWAR, help behind the plate figures to be on the Yankees’ agenda this winter. They have some strong backstop prospects in J.C. Murphy and Gary Sanchez, but prospects break hearts and if the team has a chance to land a quality catcher this offseason, they should consider it. Strongly consider it. Very strongly.
Long-time Braves catcher Brian McCann is a free agent and his camp has already had preliminary talks with New York according to Andy McCullough. That makes sense, especially since elite catchers very rarely hit the open market. In fact, since Ivan Rodriguez signed his four-year, $40M deal with the Tigers prior to the 2004 season, the largest contract given to a free agent catcher is the three-year, $18M pact the Marlins gave John Buck three years ago. Good catchers never ever ever become free agents. Teams lock them up because they know how rare and precious they are.
On the surface, McCann makes perfect since for the Yankees. If he’s not an elite catcher, he’s damn near elite. One of the five best in baseball. He’s also a left-handed power hitter who should benefit quite a bit from the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium. There is more to life than that though, especially when talking about a guy who had surgery to repair a tear in his labrum and general instability in his right shoulder last October. Let’s break down his game to see just how much of a fit he is for New York:
- McCann showed no ill effects from the surgery offensively by hitting .256/.336/.461 (122 wRC+) with 20 homers in 402 plate appearances this year. He struggled mightily while playing through the injury last summer (87 wRC+) but rebounded to his pre-surgery levels (121 wRC+ from 2009-2011). His strikeout rate (16.4% in both 2013 and 2009-2011) is lower than the league average as well.
- He fits the classic Yankees’ mold of power and patience. McCann drew a walk in 9.7% of his plate appearances this year (10.9% from 2009-2011) and managed a .205 ISO (.195 from 2009-2011) despite playing in pitcher-friendly Turner Field. As his spray charts show (2013, 2009-2011), he does most of his damage when he pulls the ball to right. That fit perfectly with Yankee Stadium.
- Aside from the shoulder problem last year, McCann has been very durable by catcher standards since breaking into the league 2005. The shoulder surgery is a huge red flag obviously, but it’s not like he has a tendency to visit the DL every year or anything.
- Outside of what appears to be an outlier in 2011, McCann has consistently rated as an above-average defensive catcher (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 rankings). He has also grades out as an excellent pitch-framer, both this past season and historically (subs. req’d).
- McCann has played in the postseason a bunch of times and has plenty of experience in pennant races and all that with the Braves. I don’t know how valuable that actually is, but it can’t hurt.
- McCann’s overall offensive performance was very good this year, but he really struggled against southpaws for the first time since breaking into the league: .231/.279/.337 (72 wRC+) against lefties but .266/.357/.512 (141 wRC+) against righties. From 2009-2011, it was .250/.323/.411 (100 wRC+) against lefties and .284/.374/.494 (131 wRC+) against righties.
- Despite the strong defensive scores, McCann has always been below-average at throwing out attempted base-stealers. He cut down just 15 of 62 (24.2%) runners this year and 89 of 353 (25.2%) from 2009-2011. Consistently five or so percentage points below the league average.
- McCann has no value on the bases whatsoever, which is par for the catcher course. He attempted one stolen base this year and only 21 over the last five years. He’s also well-below-average at taking the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.), succeeding only 17% of the time since 2009. The league average is close to 40%. He’s a base-clogger in the historical sense of the term.
- The Braves unsurprisingly made McCann a qualifying offer before Monday’s deadline, so the Yankees or any other club will have to forfeit a high draft pick to sign him. For New York, that means the 18th overall selection.
- McCann came off as kind of a dick late in the season during the homer incidents with Jose Fernandez (video) and Carlos Gomez (video). That is weak.
I think Yadier Molina’s five-year, $75M contract is the benchmark for McCann’s next deal. I think that’s the starting point, really. It’s been two seasons since Molina signed his contract and free agent prices have only gone up, plus McCann will be a true free agent and able to get several teams involved in a bidding war. Molina is clearly the superior player, but he signed an extension and could only negotiate with one team. I mentioned before how rare it is for a top catcher life McCann to hit the market, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the team that lands him is the one willing to offer a sixth year.
McCann turns 30 in February and already has more than 8,800 career innings at catcher to his credit, so expecting him to remain behind the plate for the entirety of a five (or six) year contract seems unreasonable. I think the realistic case is getting two full years at catcher, one year split between catcher and first base, then two years split between first base and DH. That timetable lines up well with the expiration of Mark Teixeira’s contract, so McCann could slide right over to first once he starts to turn into a pumpkin behind the dish. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get three full years at catcher during a five-year deal.
There is almost no chance the Yankees could fit McCann into their $189M or less payroll next season without Alex Rodriguez being suspended for all of 2014. That’s a problem because the ruling for A-Rod’s appeal may not be handed down until mid-December, after the Winter Meetings when most top free agents pick a new team. Maybe McCann will be one of the exceptions who drag their decision into January, but the point remains: the Yankees can’t seriously pursue him until they know A-Rod’s salary is off the books for certain. That’s unfortunate, McCann is such a perfect fit.