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Steal.

That was my first and only reaction to the announcement that the Braves had signed catcher Brian McCann to a six-year deal worth $26.8 million. The deal keeps the team out of arbitration with McCann and ties him to the Braves through at least his seventh season in the big leagues, while buying out up to two years of free agency.

McCann is already a star, a left-handed-hitting catcher who is the complete package at the plate: average, power and discipline. He’s two years ahead of where Mike Piazza-the most recent comparable-was; at 22, Piazza was a year away from a cup of coffee with the Dodgers. McCann, meanwhile, hit .333/.388/.572 in 130 games, on the heels of a .278/.345/.400 partial season at 21. Like Piazza, McCann isn’t anything special with the glove, having thrown out just 26 of 118 basestealers in two seasons, and rating as slightly below average in Clay Davenport‘s system. Perhaps the most interesting comparison is to Yogi Berra, another left-handed-hitting catcher who debuted at 21. Through age 22:

         AB    H   2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   FRAA (C only)
Berra   315   90   16   3  13  14  13  .286  .316  .479     -3
McCann  622  197   41   0  29  81 116  .317  .376  .523     -5

This isn’t to say that McCann will become one of the four greatest catchers ever, but it does illustrate that his performance to date allows him to be mentioned in that company. Like Berra, McCann has a catcher’s build that should enable him to stay behind the plate for some time. This is in particular contrast to Joe Mauer, a tall, almost lanky man who I’ve argued will not be able to withstand the rigors for very long. It should be noted that Mauer has developed into an excellent defensive catcher and a durable one, so my analysis of him from three years ago has to be called into question.

What I like most about the contract is that it gets the Braves out in front of an exploding market for talent. McCann would not likely have been eligible for arbitration until after the 2008 season-he will most likely fall just shy of “super two” status at the end of ’07-and his salaries in ’07 and ’08, $1.3 million total, reflect that. He gets boosts through his arbitration seasons, but moderate ones, a total of $15.5 million in 2009-11. His arb-year salaries are low enough that the Braves’ exposure here is very small. Add in a million bucks in signing bonus over the five years. To not be worth the money, McCann would have to miss entire seasons; there’s virtually no non-degenerate career path that would cause him to be overpaid at $3.5 million, $5.5 million and $6.5 million in his age 25-27 seasons. That’s what a one- or two-win player is worth these days.

In fact, given what we saw this past winter, it’s likely that the Braves are going to save tens of millions of dollars in salary on this deal. The heated free-agent market was a direct result of revenue growth in the industry, growth driven by the game’s popularity. Now, the only thing that has lowered demand for baseball in the last 35 years is a work stoppage. With the chance of that off the table in the short term, and reduced in the long term, the most likely scenario is that demand for the game, and revenues produced by that demand, will increase. When that happens, salaries rise, and not just for free agents.

Just eyeballing the arbitration figures last winter, you see that super-two Justin Morneau filed at $5 million, the Twins at $4 million. As a catcher, a player without Morneau’s struggles on his resume, and one with three-plus years of service, those figures would seem to be the low end for McCann after 2008 (Chase Utley‘s spread, $4.5MM/$6.25MM, is another possible indication of McCann’s cost). With, say, $4.5 million as an arb-influenced 2009 salary, McCann’s 2010 and 2011 contracts would be accordingly higher, and if he plays as well as he’s projected to, the sky could be the limit in those years. The two free-agent years–$8.5 million with incentives in 2012, $12-million option in 2013-will look like bargains by the time they roll around.

There’s some risk here for the Braves, but it’s almost entirely in 2012, a contract year that actually reverts to a club option if McCann underperforms by too much up to that point. Over the next five seasons, the team is going to run a very nice profit on this contract, while also benefitting from cost certainty, from being able to market a young star they know they can keep, and from avoiding cycles of negotiation and arbitration that can try a team’s relationship with a player. Only in the case of a career-altering injury-which in the case of a catcher is always a possibility-do the Braves not do well here. It’s a terrific move by John Schuerholz.