Brian McCann: A good player but a bad investment

Brian McCann was the second-best Brave (after Chipper Jones) of the past decade. Reports indicate that he could command $100 million over six seasons as a free agent from certain American League suitors. At $16.7 million per year, that would be a bountiful bump from the $12 million he made in 2013.

According to Dan Szymborski of ESPN, it also would be money misspent. Szymborski is the creator of ZiPS, a projection system that mirrors the in-house computations many teams run. “I’ve done a little consulting,” he said Wednesday. “I know how organizations think.”

For, Szymborski wrote: “ZiPS sees McCann continuing to perform well in 2014, hitting .263/.339/.462, good for a 115 OPS+ (adjusted on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and 3.0 WAR (wins above replacement). … Problem is, it’s all downhill from there, with McCann profiling as a below-average player by the fourth year of his new contract.”

Before ZiPS and its brethren, teams tended to pay on what players had done. With such projections, which are based in historical data and take age and position into account, teams can make a salary assessment with regard to what players are apt to do. (Which isn’t to say that teams don’t get carried away. San Francisco just re-upped Tim Lincecum, who has been substandard for two seasons, for $35 million over two years.)

Szymborski pointed to a watershed bad signing — the $275 million over 10 seasons the Yankees spent to retain the 32-year-old Alex Rodiguez in December 2007. “The first A-Rod contract ($252 million over 10 years, signed with Texas in December 2000) you could actually justify,” Szymborski said. “But 10 years for a 25-year-old is different from 10 years for a 30-year-old.”

In December 2011, Albert Pujols left St. Louis, which had just won the World Series, to sign with the Angels for $240 million over 10 years. The Cardinals have made the playoffs in both post-Pujols seasons and were set to face Boston in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night; the Angels didn’t qualify for the playoffs either year and saw the 33-year-old Pujols limited to 99 games this season. Once the game’s greatest hitter, he’s now a lousy investment.

“The Cardinals were prepared to pay a lot for Pujols,” Szymborski said, “but they weren’t prepared to pay (just) anything … It turned out even worse (for the Angels) than I thought. The Red Sox bought their way out of the (Josh) Beckett and (Carl) Crawford contracts.”

Your Series matchup: A club that lost its best player and kept on truckin’ versus a famously free-spending franchise that tightened its belt. (Boston traded Beckett, Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, who had $260 million remaining on their respective contracts, to the Dodgers in August 2012.) Asked if it would be too easy to dub this Fall Classic a showcase of smarter spending, Szymborski said: “I don’t think it’s an overstatement.”

Back to McCann, who’ll turn 30 in February. If the Braves were to make a long-term offer to keep him — the consensus is that they won’t — what should they expect?

Szymborski: “They can’t think they’d be getting 2005-2013 again. They’d be getting 2014 on up. He’s a catcher, which is a difficult position — that’s one thing history has consistently shown. I’d say $60 or $70 million might do it and can be justified. But they’re not desperate for catching. Evan Gattis would be a downgrade — he’s not as good as McCann — but he’s not a bad player.”

Under general manager Frank Wren, The Braves have become a repository of big bad contracts: First Derek Lowe, now Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. “With Uggla, I thought (a five-year, $62 million extension for the then-30-year-old second baseman) was a very bad contract,” Szymborski said. “I did like the Upton signing ($75.25 million over five years), even though it hasn’t worked.”

Speculation holds that the Braves might seek to trade Uggla to Cincinnati for second baseman Brandon Phillips, who drove in 103 runs this season and hails from Stone Mountain. Phillips’ age (32) and the money owed him ($50 million over four seasons) stand as reasons to be fearful. “With Phillips, you’d have the same age issue (as with Uggla),” Szymborski said.

The Braves haven’t recently gotten their money’s worth from the biggest earners, and still they’ve managed the best record among National League teams the past four seasons. We can only imagine what they might do if they became savvy shoppers. Not overpaying to keep McCann would be the place to start.

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