December 1, 2011 at 10:58 am by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves, Economic Analysis, Farm System, Player Analysis, Transactions
So David O’Brien stoked up the fires of Braves fans everywhere with his most recent blog discussing the prospects for a Brian McCann extension. It was actually a very good article, though it more reported the facts than went into analysis of what will happen (DO’B is actually excellent at these kinds of articles). However, many Braves fans were highly perturbed that O’Brien would even suggest the possibility that the Braves may go with young Christian Bethancourt instead of extending McCann into the golden sunset. One Twitter follower even missed the point so badly that he tweeted O’Brien asking “you’re seriously comparing a future HOFer to a guy who has 0 MLB at bats (Bethancourt)?!”
Braves fans are just now coming to terms with the fact that Jair Jurrjens at the very least won’t be extended, and will probably be traded before he hits free agency. Then there’s the idea of also trading the gritty, scrappy, ‘just loves playing the game of baseball’ Martin Prado that’s also had some among the Braves faithful reigniting their disdain for GM Frank Wren. Not keeping McCann long term would just break their backs. Stay calm Braves fans. Brain McCann, barring a significant injury within the next year, will sign long term and here’s why.
Brian McCann likes being a Brave. This much is obvious, it’d be a great inconvenience for him to leave, personally. He’s built his whole life around this area and seems to genuinely love the area. If there was ever a candidate for a guy taking a hometown discount, it’s Brian McCann. No, he wouldn’t accept 7 years at 6 million a year or anything absurd like that. But I truly believe he’d take at least 2-3 million under what he’d get on the open market. As O’Brien also points out, he also has an agent that has taken team friendly deals in the past with Chipper Jones. Now, this isn’t so much about the agent, as it is a signal of McCann’s intentions. If McCann was fully intending to try to get the maximum he could squeeze out of the Braves, then he’d likely have changed agents by now. B.B. Abbott is the agent you choose when you want more of a ‘lifestyle deal’. While Scott Boras is excellent at what he does, he actually tends to avoid clients that aren’t seeking the maximum they can get, or at least he tries to convince them of the errors in their ways. The fact that McCann has chosen, and stuck with B.B. Abbott is a very good sign for Braves fans.
Now, the other issue is that Brian McCann may be worth more to the Braves than any other team. I know most of the SABR crowd is loathe to valuate a player on anything other than strictly on the field metrics. But the Atlanta Braves have spent a lot of money in marketing Brian McCann. While the ‘face of the franchise’ idea can often times be overplayed, some also might underplay it. The Braves marketing department has tied up a lot of the value of the Braves brand into the Brian McCann brand. In my view, they’ve in many ways put in a large long term investment in him already as a selling point both team value wise and ticket wise.
There are some counterbalancing factors here as well though. On a strictly ‘on the field’ measure McCann would likely be more valuable to an American League team, where he could transition to DH if his body wore down too much to be an effective catcher, and even if it didn’t, he’d provide additional value as a DH during his scheduled off days, much like Mauer has for the Twins.
However, it’s my firm belief that with the Braves substantial investment in marketing McCann as the selling point to fans for the franchise, and McCann’s comfort with the area, it is so far in both parties’ interest that it seems highly improbable that he won’t sign at least one more contract as a Brave. I believe the chances are high that after his next contract he would go to an AL team as his body continues to wear down from catching, but I think both sides, McCann and the Braves, will be willing to risk another 5-7 years (from this point forward, not 5-7 years from 2014) of McCann as a full time catcher.
Now, all that might not matter if the Braves just flat out cannot afford to sign him to an at least reasonable long term contract without crippling the franchise. So we have to explore what flexibility the team will have over the next 7 years and whether or not this would allow them to sign McCann.
Using Cot’s Atlanta Braves contract obligations page, we see that the Braves do indeed have substantial payroll flexibility. Not only are they only on the hook for Uggla after next year, but it appears they will be able to field an excellent pitching staff entirely based around ML minimum and arbitration players. This will likely allow them to field an entire starting staff for around the cost of C.C. Sabathia. During that time it seems likely that SS, RF and 1B will also be comprised of arbitration and ML minimum players (Pastornicky, Heyward and Freeman). It is difficult to know exactly where all these arbitration numbers will fall, and which players may or may not be non-tendered, but my estimate is that for 2014 (the first year the Braves wouldn’t control McCann), the Braves are looking at being able to fill 5 starters, Closer, Primary Set Up Man, 1B, 2B, SS and RF for around 35-40 million. There’s no reason to think the Braves budget will significantly deviate from the ~88 Million it’s been at in previous years. Leaving the team with roughly 50 million dollars to fill Catcher, 3B, CF and LF (along with bench spots and filler bullpen roles). I’ll just guess that the mix of 3B, CF, LF and bench/bullpen will cost somewhere around $30 Million, with a mix of prospects, trades and free agents filling those roles. That leaves the Braves with something like a max of $20 Million for McCann in 2014.
However, the issue isn’t McCann’s first year, it’s the subsequent years as players like Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel continue to see their salaries escalate through the arbitration ranks (or possibly having their arbitration and first few years of free agency bought out in an extension).
This would be the one drawback to having such a productive farm. The Braves would either be forced to trade at least some of these players, or have serious payroll restrictions. If many of these players perform like we expect them to, they could see arbitration awards in the neighborhood of 6-10 million, especially in their final years of arbitration. Beginning in 2016, the Braves will begin to feel a substantial pinch, as many of their top flight players are scheduled to hit the free agent market. If they aren’t resigned at substantial cost, and there isn’t a rookie waiting in the wings, they’ll have to be replaced at a substantial cost.
This is the part where things become tricky. If the Braves do sign McCann to a long term deal, they’re not only taking a gamble that McCann’s body will hold up to the rigors of catching full time for several more years, they’re also gambling that their farm system will continue to be just as productive as it has been in recent years. Especially 2015-2016. If the Braves begin to see the farm system well dry up during that time span, things could get ugly, as they’d be forced to either depend on substandard rookies or cheap free agents to fill in the gaps in 2015-2016.
With Bethancourt, the Braves would be taking substantially less of a gamble. Sure, he might not, in fact almost certainly will not, be the player that McCann is. But with Bethancourt at the ML minimum for a few years and then as a lower cost arbitration player, the Braves would have substantially greater payroll flexibility to cover over potential shortcomings in other areas.
That being said, I think that’s a gamble the Braves take. Wren seems justifiably confident in his ability to build and maintain a productive farm system, and the fact that the new CBA will no longer punish the Braves draft penny pinching ways quite as much bodes well for the future of the farm system. We can also take into account that if Bethancourt continues to mature into a highly valuable prospect, he could be traded to either bring in a missing piece, or more likely substantially bolster the farm system in areas of greater immediate need.
So, finally, let’s look at the exact dollar amounts that it would likely take to get it done. First we have to set the top and bottom of the market. Those two numbers are easy enough to set: McCann won’t take a paycut from his 2013 pay and no team is going to pay him more than the Twins shelled out for Mauer. That establishes his bottom number as $13 million and his top number as $23 million. Obviously however there is a lot of room between those two numbers.
First, I think we can attack the top number somewhat. Joe Mauer was also a hometown product (Born in St. Paul Minnesota), so many of the similarities between the two are stunning. However, I think that Mauer’s injury has scared some of the more skittish GMs, who might otherwise lavish money upon McCann, at least a little. Additionally, while McCann’s career numbers compare very favorably to Mauer’s, McCann hasn’t had a year like Mauer did in 2009, which was likely also overvalued by the Twins, because they seem to organizationally care a lot about batting average. I wouldn’t think McCann would be able to find much in excess of $19 million per on the free agency market. Especially since the Yankees seem content with a young catcher, the Red Sox seem to be going forward with Salty (interesting McCann gets blocked by Salty) and the Angels seem to be really high on Ianetta’s OBP. While all of thsoe are fluid situations, it likely precludes any of those teams from being able to fully just blow away the Braves offer. So, for now, let’s estimate the top of the market at $19 million.
At the bottom, I don’t see McCann taking anything under a $3 million raise from his option year on his current contract. So, we can then say the absolute bottom will likely be $15 million.
With a range of $15 million to $19 million, I’d expect that the Braves will first exercise their club option on McCann for 2013, then extend him midseason through 2018, for a total of 5 years, $80 million at $16 million per, with performance bonuses that could put him up to $18 million per.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides here. McCann will likely be leaving some money on the table, for stability and security. The Braves are taking a substantial risk that McCann will stay healthy and that their farm system will continue to provide the big club with several cheap younger players in future years. However, given the investments both parties have made in this relationship to this point, I don’t see any scenario (except substantial injury in the next year and a half) where both sides fail to agree to continue the relationship. I don’t even expect the dealings to be especially contentious.
follow me on twitter @fjrabon