Does Brian McCann Have to Move to the AL to Be Worth Big-Money Deal?

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Does Brian McCann Have to Move to the AL to Be Worth Big-Money Deal?

Free agent catcher Brian McCann will be a widely discussed name over the coming weeks and months.

With the 2013 World Series reaching its conclusion, the hot stove season is just around the corner, leaving baseball fans and experts wondering where the top players will land. Bleacher Report's Jason Martinez recently ranked McCann as one of the top free agents on the market and predicted an eventual five-year, $70 million contract for the 29-year-old catcher.

Earlier this month, an MLB general manager told ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand that McCann could garner a deal for six years and $100 million in free agency. Of course, there was a stipulation placed upon the general manager's prediction: McCann could transition to first base or designated hitter at the end of the pact.

The latter, of course, would involve signing with an American League team.

If McCann lands a contract anywhere between $70 and $100 million, it's a major investment for a catcher who will be 30 when Opening Day arrives. Through this juncture of his career, McCann has proven to be one of the most prolific offensive catchers in baseball and a very durable player.

Yet a long-term deal would be much easier to understand if it came from an American League team with a soft landing spot at designated hitter. If McCann stays in the National League, where there is interest from the San Francisco Giants, via CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, catching would have to remain his primary position as his career fades. 

As the following chart shows, McCann is just one of five catchers in baseball to catch 1,000 or more games since 2006. That durability can mean two things during impending contract negotiations with free-agent buyers: McCann's durability can ease the concern of National League clubs, or, in a more likely scenario, raise eyebrows about how many innings McCann's knees have left behind the dish. 

Most Games at Catcher (2006-2013)
Player Games HR OPS
A.J. Pierzynski 1074 117 .741
Yadier Molina 1053 79 .754
Russell Martin 1052 108 .745
Brian McCann 1046 171 .827
Joe Mauer 1012 90 .883
Victor Martinez 959 112 .835
John Buck 869 109 .704
Mike Napoli 866 169 .859
Kurt Suzuki 840 67 .685
Carlos Ruiz 825 57 .770

Baseball-Reference

Heyman's piece mentions the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox among potential suitors. As Junior Circuit teams, all would offer a less strenuous position for McCann's big bat down the line, making a five- or six-year deal much more palatable.  

With those concerns addressed, it's not imperative that McCann lands with an American League team. 

It's clearly the more desirable situation for player, agent and potential team, but McCann is still in his prime, able to handle the majority of the load behind the plate and not a negative defensive player.

If McCann were a 34-year-old catcher with more than a decade of work behind the plate, this wouldn't be much of a debate; the American League would profile as the only route. Concern begins to creep into the minds of front office executives whenever a player is on the wrong side of 30, but McCann should still be able to catch for years.

Since the start of the 2006 season, McCann has averaged 131 games played per year. If he played any position other than catcher, 31 games missed per season would be alarming. However, with the necessity for every team to carry a backup catcher for 20 to 30 starts per season, McCann's main accommodation from his next squad will be a teammate like David Ross or Evan Gattis, not a DH spot in the lineup.

That being said, if a team had a Ross or Gattis type and a DH position in the lineup, McCann could enhance his offensive value by making 150-plus starts in the lineup for the first time in his career. The American League would make McCann a more productive player. 

Should National League teams shy away from McCann?

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Of course, this debate would be much, much easier if McCann were a defensive liability behind home plate.

Although he'll never be confused with a Molina brother or Salvador Perez, McCann has rarely hurt Atlanta on defense during his career. According to FanGraphs, McCann has been a positive defender in every season since 2008. Even if his defense slips a bit as he ages, it's hard to imagine him becoming poor enough that a defensive replacement is needed late in games. 

The gap between $70 and $100 million in free-agent money is significant for McCann. If he can get a figure close to $100 million, the offer is likely coming from an American League team because it can alleviate the minor concerns around his position and future wear and tear.

If the final number comes in closer to $70 million, the offer is likely coming from a National League team factoring in a defensive decline and the cost of a legitimate backup catcher during the entire contract.

Over the last nine seasons, McCann has been a seven-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger (via Baseball-Reference) at the catching position. He's earned the right to stay behind the plate for years to come, but a future landing spot away from the strenuous defensive position would be a boon for his long-term effectiveness as a hitter.

Heading into free agency, McCann shouldn't be considered taboo for National League teams, but it's easy to see why he's more attractive to American League teams like New York and Texas than he is for any National League contender.

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