Brian McCann has never been in this situation. Three days before Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the six-time former All-Star is not ready to play ball. Not until his surgically repaired right shoulder is healed and re-strengthened, which should be some point in the first month of the season.
His recovery from October surgery is going well, on schedule with no setbacks. But for now, if anyone gives a more specific return date than “some point in April,” he’s probably just hoping or guessing, or repeating something said by someone else who was hoping or guessing.
“Just started hitting off a tee," said McCann, who is aiming for a return as soon as he's cleared to play, probably around April 15. "I started throwing last week, from 45 feet. Sixty feet this week. I’ve thrown a total of six times. Next week hopefully at 90 feet, and just go from there. I’ve got to build my arm strength back up.”
He added, “My shoulder feels really good.”
McCann is doing his best to temper excitement, at least publicly. But there’s something distinct in his voice. Confidence. Determination.
The five-time former Silver Slugger Award winner is entering a $12 million team-option year on his contract, with no assurances whatsoever that he’ll be re-signed. Here is a local guy with deep roots in the community, a player who’ll be 29 on Feb. 20. There is a lot that could be rattling around McCann’s mind, but he says he’s focused on rehab.
A few years ago, this wasn’t how most of us envisioned this going down. Once considered the future face of the franchise, McCann might hit the free-agent market next winter if the Braves determine that strong-armed prospect Christian Bethancourt can hit enough to be their catcher sooner than later.
Or – and this still seems unlikely – if they decide that Evan Gattis is enough of a slugger to offset defensive deficiencies.
For now, no one in the organization seems willing to say anything about McCann other than his recovery’s going well and they believe he’ll have a big season. The team and his agent, BB Abbott (Chipper Jones’ longtime agent) agreed to suspend contract talks until after the season, although general manager Frank Wren hasn’t ruled out in-season talks.
Which brings us back to McCann on the eve of spring training with the only organization he’s known since being a second-round pick out of Duluth High in 2002. (The Braves drafted Jeff Francoeur out of nearby Parkview High in the first round that year.)
McCann reached the majors in 2005, Tim Hudson’s first season in Atlanta. With Jones retired, McCann and Hudson have been Braves far longer than any other player on the roster.
Assuming McCann isn’t in the Opening Day lineup April 1 vs. Philadelphia, Jason Heyward will have been with the Braves longer than any other position player in a revamped lineup that features the Upton brothers, Justin and B.J., added to the outfield this winter.
To reach their goal of advancing deep in the postseason, the Braves probably need a good year from McCann, who played with a torn labrum in 2012 and snapped a franchise-record streak for All-Star appearances to start a career. Dependable backup David Ross left as a free agent, and the Braves will make do with free-agent signee Gerald Laird as primary catcher until McCann returns.
McCann had career-worsts in most offensive categories, hitting .230, 67 RBIs, a .300 OBP and .399 slugging percentage, albeit with 20 homers. The NL’s best-hitting catcher of the past decade, he entered last season with .286 career average, .358 OBP and .486 slugging percentage, along with 87 or more RBIs in four of six seasons.
McCann has caught more than 900 games for the Braves and been their steadiest performer. He often played banged-up and always downplayed injuries, never using aches and pains as an excuse for a bad game or slump.
Some who know him say not getting benefit of the doubt stung him a bit last season, when McCann finally divulged in late summer that the shoulder problem was worse than some had suggested. McCann thought he’d need surgery after the season, and was correct: When he went in the shoulder, Dr. Xavier Duralde found a tear worse than expected.
Duralde did a posterior superior labral tear repair, in which all ligaments attached to the labrum are secured back to the socket to stabilize the joint. Rehab was expected to require at least six months. Feb. 16 is the four-month mark.
McCann said doctors won’t clear him for full-on playing in games until April 15. Until then he’ll get plenty of at-bats in minor-league spring training games in a controlled atmosphere, where he won’t risk reinjury by sliding, diving or collisions.
Once cleared to play, he wants to be ready to rejoin the Braves without much of a minor league rehab assignment.
In the opening weeks of spring training, McCann will do strength and conditioning while the team is hitting, throwing and playing. His shoulder kept him from offseason strength work.
“You can’t come out of the gate like you normally do,” he said. “Got to build from scratch. It’s probably going to take all of spring training for me to get it back, throwing as hard as I can and all that. But it’s part of the process. I’m on schedule.”