Brian McCann, the best-hitting catcher in Atlanta Braves history, is about to become a New York Yankee and the highest-paid free agent catcher in baseball history.
The seven-time All-Star agreed to terms Saturday with the Yankees on a five-year, $85 million contract that includes a sixth-year vesting option that could push the total value of the contract to $100 million, a personal familiar with negotiations said. The deal was pending a physical exam.
“It’s a bittersweet day for him,” said McCann’s agent B.B. Abbott. “He has a special place in his heart for Atlanta.”
The $17 million average salary of the five guaranteed years in McCann’s contract will be the highest for a free-agent catcher. The biggest contract ever for a catcher was Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million extension ($23 million average) with the Twins three years ago.
Mauer announced this month he’s moving to first base because of health concerns after his most recent concussion.
Because the Braves made a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer to McCann, they will receive a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds in the June draft. McCann, 29, declined the qualifying offer, and while the Braves continued negotations with his agent, they were not believed to be among the teams that made the largest offers.
McCann is a .277 career hitter with a .350 on-base percentage, and leads all catchers in home runs (171) and RBIs (638) since the beginning of the 2006 season, his first full year in the majors. The next-highest totals among catchers in that span were A.J. Pierzynski’s 117 homers and Mauer’s 562 RBIs.
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina signed a five-year, $75 million contract extension nearly two years ago that set the standard for negotiations with McCann, who is a five-time Silver Slugger award winner.
McCann drew interest from about 10 teams including the Rangers, Red Sox and Rockies, who reportedly made a late push. Abbott declined to say which teams were runners-up in the bidding for the Georgia native, who has spent his entire career with the Braves after being selected out of Duluth High School in the second round of the 2002 draft.
“(The Braves) handled it professionally, as you would expect,” Abbott said of negotiations. “They are class acts.”
The Braves have payroll constraints and more than half of their returning players eligible for arbitration and big raises. They have younger, cheaper options at catcher in Evan Gattis and prospect Christian Bethancourt, and have veteran backup Gerald Laird under contract for another year.
Gattis, who hit .243 and ranked first among major league rookies in RBIs (65) and second in homers (21), is expected to be their primary catcher going into the 2014 season, with Laird as backup.
“(Gattis) did a real nice job catching, he did a real nice job throwing and calling games,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said this month. “We feel comfortable with him back there…. So if Brian McCann were to sign elsewhere, we would be in a situation where we would have those two as well as Bethancourt coming into spring training competing.”
Although it had been apparent for quite some time that McCann was likely to sign elsewhere, the reality of the popular catcher’s exit is another jarring development for Braves fans in what’s been an eventful month.
Last week, Braves free-agent pitcher Tim Hudson signed with San Francisco, and the Braves announced Nov. 11 that they would move from downtown Atlanta to a planned new ballpark in Cobb County in 2017 — a move that many Braves fans have praised and others have lamented or criticized.
American League teams envisioned using McCann as a part-time designated hitter when he’s not catching, and Abbott said this week that McCann was also open to playing first base on a part-time basis. With no DH in the National League, it had long been expected McCann would end up in the AL if he left Atlanta.
He could eventually move to a full-time DH role if the wear and tear of catching takes a toll on McCann, who’ll be 30 in February.
After missing the first month of the 2013 season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, he hit .256 with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs in 102 games, his seventh season with at least 20 homers.
The consensus around baseball is that McCann could hit a lot more than 20 annually while playing half of his games at Yankee Stadium with its cozy dimensions in right field.