The Atlanta Braves and Brian McCann are going to face a potentially sticky situation sometime in the next 15 months.
McCann, who means much more to the organization than just an All-Star catcher, was drafted, developed and brought to the Major Leagues by the Braves. He is exactly the kind of person you hope to build a team around for years to come, similar to the role Chipper Jones took for the last decade in Atlanta.
A first-rate baseball player and first-rate teammate, McCann is everything a Braves fan could have hoped for when they used an early round pick on him in 2002.
There is very little doubt that Mac will remain with the club through the end of 2012 and he has a no-brainer option on his contract worth $13 million that will be picked up for 2013.
Where do the Braves go from there? The situation is getting messy if recent contracts are any indication.
In case you missed the piece from Rob Neyer, the franchise could face some serious financial restrictions in the coming years due to a limited television contract. While most teams around MLB expand their budgets and start handing out blank checks to free agents, the Braves will likely have to be very savvy with their spending going forward. For a team that will likely have a payroll of a little less than $100 million in the coming years, deciding which players to pursue and which ones to let go will become increasingly difficult for general manager Frank Wren.
Simply put, the Braves cannot afford an albatross contract (see Ryan Howard and the Phillies, Vernon Wells and the Angels) on their roster if they hope to stay competitive for years to come. Other clubs can mask their contract issues because of their deep funding, but not Atlanta. Not as long as Liberty Media owns the team, anyway.
This brings us back to McCann and other catchers around the league.
Miguel Montero, a solid catcher in his own right, just received a five-year, $60 million extension. He will soon turn 29 years old and has significantly lower career numbers than McCann does.
Yadier Molina, who turns 30 in two months, got five years and $75 million in the spring, with an option to earn an extra $15 million in his final season. Molina has never been the offensive stalwart that McCann is, but he is among the best defensive catchers in the game and is every bit as important in the clubhouse as Mac is in Atlanta.
McCann will be nearly 30 years old by the time his current deal expires in 2013. As of Monday, May 28 he has caught 7,335 innings in the Major Leagues, an incredibly high number for a catcher his age. That's a lot of wear and tear on his knees, that's a lot of foul balls taken off the mask.
Let's be conservative and say the asking price from McCann and his agent is similar to that of Molina's deal. That means he would potentially be in Atlanta until he reaches 35 or 36 years of age, and would command $15 million (or so) each season.
Assuming the Braves aren't sold in the near future, that's going to be about 15% of Atlanta's entire budget for the next five or six years. Catchers do not age well, and most don't log as many innings as McCann already has until they're in their mid-30s.
So here's the million dollar(s) question: do the Braves give that kind of money to a player who has been a franchise cornerstone for years, who will also likely hit a rapid decline in production a couple of seasons into the deal?
Atlanta does have some payroll flexibility moving forward. Only Dan Uggla is signed after the 2013 season, and we know a lot of money will be freed up by the retirement of Chipper Jones and (probably) Tim Hudson.
At the same time, what do the Braves do with Martin Prado, who is a free agent after 2013? What about their young-and-upcoming guys in Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Brandon Beachy and Craig Kimbrel? What if the club wants to make a play through free agency to bring a top-level talent to Turner Field?
These are all huge decisions that will require a lot of money, and they will be affected greatly by whether or not McCann is given a big contract extension.
The club does have a potential replacement currently in the farm system in Christian Bethancourt. Still just 20 years old, Bethancourt has the potential to become an elite defensive catcher in the Major Leagues. This being said, Bethancourt is still yet to hit with any consistency and needs to refine his approach at the plate if he hopes to make it as a starter in Atlanta.
Bethancourt has potential, but is hardly a sure thing. And that's an awfully scary situation for a GM when trying to evaluate the future of the team.
The Braves will continue to watch the development of Bethancourt and McCann this next year and we should likely get a better sense of which direction the club will go by this time, but until then there really isn't a whole lot of certainly with Mac's future in Atlanta.
A fan base never wants to see a cornerstone player leave, but the Braves will be very limited financially in the coming years. It's tough to guarantee a catcher on the wrong side of 30 that kind of money.
For more on the club and McCann's future, check out Talking Chop.