(UPDATED: 10 p.m.)
In his first six full major league seasons, Brian McCann has played in six All-Star games, won an All-Star game MVP, won five Silver Slugger awards, accumulated more home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits and game-winning hits than any catcher in baseball, won a lot of games, smiled a lot, never caused a riff and has proved to be so genuine and honest that he probably wouldn’t know a magic muscle-inflating pill if one did a backflip into his morning Cocoa Puffs.
“He puts up numbers, and he did it even when other guys were taking performance-enhancers,” Braves teammate David Ross said. “He’s more like, ‘How many Advil should I take?’ I can’t corrupt him. He won’t even drink a Red Bull. I want to punch him.”
All of which makes you wonder how it could be that the Braves and McCann may part ways at some point in the near future.
The Braves are off to a good start. They own the second-best record in the National League after Tuesday’s 6-2 win over Cincinnati. Until this game, almost everybody had been hitting except McCann (.231), their most consistent player over the past several seasons. But after he homered, walked and singled in his first three at-bats, maybe that aberration is complete.
There figured to be a market correction. With a career average of .286, McCann has been too good for too long for him to not rebound. The question is whether those numbers will factor into what the Braves do next with McCann contractually.
His salary this year jumped to $11.5 million (after escalators). The Braves have a $12 million club option for next season, but negotiating during a contract year can be problematic. So logic suggests the team and McCann’s agent will start talking soon.
But are the Braves fully committed to re-signing McCann? St. Louis signed catcher Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million extension. If we assume that’s the benchmark, it questionable whether Wren will give a long-term, $15 million-a-year deal to a catcher. There’s no room for McCann (now 28) to eventually move to first base (Freddie Freeman), and the National League doesn’t use the designated hitter.
“We have a mutual understanding of how we’ll approach this process,” Wren said of negotiations, not elaborating. It’s executive Latin for, “No comment.”
McCann said, “I understand it’s a business. They have to do what’s best for them, and I have to do what’s best for me. I’m just going to play as hard as I can and let everything else fall into place.”
This much is certain: There were fan backlashes after the way the Braves handled the exits of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Those guys were at the end of their careers. If the Braves decide a popular player in his prime such as McCann is too expensive, even with Chipper Jones coming off the books, cars may be torched.
How McCann plays this season has obvious ramifications. He struggled in the second half last season (.203) after hitting .310 at the All-Star break. He acknowledges now he came back too early from a strained oblique, saying, “Ninety mile-an-hour pitches were looking 95. The game sped up on me. If that happened again, I would definitely play a few more games in Triple A.”
This season, he feels “seven to 10 hits” have been lost to opponents often shifting their defense to the right. But he says he’s healthy, adding, “When I’m feeling good I get hits. I just have to start using the whole field. I have to start making that shift irrelevant.”
The knock on McCann always has been his defense, but his backup, Ross, believes criticism is overstated. Statistics show McCann annually allows among the most stolen bases in the league, which no doubt will be brought up in talks. But Ross believes the numbers are skewed, saying, “We don’t have the quickest pitchers to the plate.”
At worse, Ross said, McCann is “average” on defense.
“When you consider his offense and that he calls a great game, I’ll take that,” he said. “Mac’s one of the best. Catching is a demanding position. It’s not like you’re an outfielder and can take an inning off because you didn’t get a fly ball hit to you. I just hope the Braves realize what they have.”
A split is something most would rather not think about right now. But one-team athletes like Chipper Jones are a rarity.
By Jeff Schultz