Brian McCann was the best free agent catcher on the market, and he's cashed that in for $85 million and a five-year contract with the New York Yankees. Let's take a look at his career and how it looks in context with a Prospect Retrospective.
Brian McCann was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the second round in 2002, out of high school in Duluth, Georgia. A high school All-American, his bat was well-regarded but questions about his defense kept him out of the first round. He hit just .220/.295/.330 in 29 games in rookie ball, not very good but too small a sample to worry about given the positive scouting reports. I gave him a Grade C in the 2003 book, noting that the scouting reports were good for his hitting, but that the numbers weren't yet, granted the sample was small. "We'll have to see what happens when he gets more at-bats," I wrote. Looking back at it, the C was too low and I should have gone with a high-ceiling C+ or a B- given his draft status.
The at-bats came in 2003 and so did better performance: he hit .290/.329/.462 with 12 homers in 424 at-bats for Rome in the Sally League. His OPS was solid at +15 percent, and his defense improved. I gave him a Grade C+ in the '04 book; in retrospect I should have given him at least a B- and probably a straight B given the improvement he'd shown compared to rookie ball on both offense and defense. I noted that his plate discipline needed some work, and that young catchers often have unusual development curves.
McCann hit .278/.337/.494 with 16 homers in 2004 for Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League. His defense continued to improve, and given the difficult hitting nature of his home park, his numbers were very strong. I bumped him up to Grade B+ in the '05 book, noting that I liked him a lot and that "he will be very, very good" if he avoided injury and the offensive stagnation that often plagues young catchers.
McCann began '05 in Double-A, hitting .265/.359/.476 in 48 games. Promoted to the Braves, he hit .278/.345/.400 in 59 games. He then broke out big-time in '06 with his monster .333/.388/.572 season, knocking 24 homers with a 143 OPS+. He's been one of the best catchers in baseball ever since, although his bat has slipped a bit with age. 2006, 2008 (5.3 WAR), and 2010 (5.1 WAR) look like his peak seasons.
As a prospect, scouts always liked McCann's hitting potential even though he didn't produce immediately. After a rough start in rookie ball, the numbers steadily improved as he moved up the ladder, as he gained strength, confidence, and better strike zone judgment. His defense turned out much better than originally anticipated: there was concern in high school that he might wind up at first base, but he ended up as an excellent defender.
To this point in his career, McCann is a .277/.350/.473 hitter, 117 OPS+, with a career WAR of 29.4 through 4354 plate appearances. If his career ended today, he would be the 38th-best catcher of all time according to fWAR, though barring something horrible he'll have another five years at least to boost that total. Among players with a similar number of plate appearances, he currently ranks near Tom Haller (30 WAR in 4519 PA), Walker Cooper (29.8 in 5078), Jack Clements (28.9 in 4704), and Ed Bailey (28.4 in 4208).
Being very conservative here, If he can average just 400 plate appearances and a mere 2.0 WAR per season for the next five years, he'd rank somewhere around 20th all-time, near Lance Parrish, Ernie Lombardi, and Deacon White. If he can average 500 PA and 3.0 WAR, he'd get close to the Top Ten all time.
But can he last? Looking at the history of similar players, through age 29 McCann's most comparable players by Sim Score are Parrish, Gary Carter, Frankie Hayes, Bill Freehan, Yogi Berra, Del Crandall, Bill Dickey, Yadier Molina, Mike Lieberthal, and Tim McCarver. That's an awfully strong group, with three Hall of Famers and other All-Star types.
Molina is contemporary so we don't know what will happen with him, but of the others, only Frankie Hayes faded really quickly. The others provided at least some value and productivity until their mid-30s.
Overall, I'd expect McCann to perform well for at least the next three seasons. Even if his bat sags with age, his defense should keep him valuable for the life of the contract. I think the deal is logical.
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