After playing through a bad shoulder in 2012 and struggling through the worst season of his career, Brian McCann had surgery in the offseason, returning to the Atlanta Braves lineup in early May and producing a typically solid season, even making the All-Star team for the seventh time. He hit .256/.336/.461 with 20 home runs in 356 at-bats.
McCann enters free agency as a prized commodity -- a left-handed-hitting catcher with power and leadership skills (and he definitely plays the game the right way). The Braves have Evan Gattis and Christian Bethancourt, and with McCann expected to receive something in the range of five years and $90 million, they'll likely let him depart -- perhaps to the Red Sox or Yankees.
McCann has seven 20-homer seasons; only six catchers have had more (Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk and Jorge Posada). He is entering his age-30 season, so he's young enough to produce several more and actually had the best home run ratio of his career with one every 17.8 at-bats in 2013. Particularly appealing is his ability to hit right-handed pitching, with a .512 slugging percentage against them in 2013 and .495 for his career.
McCann hit .256, 21 points below his career average, but had the highest line-drive percentage of his career, meaning he probably hit into some bad luck in 2013. Defensively, his shoulder was fine and he threw out 24 percent of base stealers, matching his career percentage (league average is 28 percent).
But he gets his highest marks on defense for his ability to handle a pitching staff; he's a veteran of four playoff teams and has helped many of the young Braves pitchers develop, including Julio Teheran in 2013.
While people often point to Bench as a warning sign for catchers who age poorly, many catchers have played well into their late 30s. Posada is a pretty close match for McCann's skill set; he walked more but was the same .275-ish hitter with 20 to 25 home runs. Posada lasted until he was 39 and from 31 to 35 hit .287/.392/.494 (with one fluke .338 season in there) while averaging 23 home runs per season. That was worth 4.6 WAR per season. While McCann won't match Posada's on-base percentage, he should still be a valuable offensive contributor.
Fisk's offensive profile is an even better match for McCann, and Fisk played forever, having some of his best seasons in his mid-30s. Gary Carter had similar career totals as McCann through age 29; he was an MVP candidate through 32 before starting to decline at 33.
Maybe it's not fair to compare McCann to two Hall of Famers, but that's the kind of offensive profile he brings. Even if his arm goes at some point, his bat is good enough for first base or DH, lessening the risk of signing him to a long-term deal, especially for an American League team.
OK, here's Carter as a warning sign: .853 OPS at 30 and 31, .776 at 32, .682 at 33 and .659 at 34. He hit .183 at 35.
The truth is that McCann has caught a lot of games in the majors before age 30. Among those who played at least 75 percent of their games at catcher, McCann is 11th on the list of games played through age 29. Carter is actually one of the positive results. Bench? He had his last good year at 32. Ted Simmons? His career went south at 34. Bill Freehan? Last good year at 32. Lance Parrish is just below McCann on the games played list but most similar in career totals through age 29. He had a decent year at age 30 and a good one at 34 but was otherwise producing less than 2 WAR per season. Ivan Rodriguez had his last above-average offensive season at 32.
So there's a long of catchers who start declining around age 32. And for all his All-Star selections, McCann hasn't exactly been a superstar. He's been a 4-WAR player just twice, in 2006 and 2008, although it's possible the defensive metrics are missing some other positives he brings behind the plate. He's also one of the slowest players in the league, one reason he's never scored more than 68 runs and his doubles have gone from 42 to 35 to 25 to 19 to 14 to 13. He also hit .220/.296/.384 in the second half, which could just be a small sample thing, his shoulder weakening or something else.
The lure of a left-handed-hitting catcher is tempting, but in McCann's case, he's hardly a perfect package. Factor in his mediocre arm, poor speed, wear on his body and hitting skills that may be deteriorating other than his power and he's not a good bet to maintain his value for more than a few years. A five- or six-year deal seems pretty risky.