Braves betting that McCann can come home again

If things don’t exactly work out between the Braves and Brian McCann this year, if he doesn’t turn back the clock and tune up this team’s boyish pitching staff, if the Hallmark Channel isn’t at least tempted to pick up his coming-home-again story, blame Freddie Freeman.

Put it all on the first baseman who sees the big picture better than any other player in the Braves’ clubhouse. Alex Anthopoulos already has – jokingly. OK, the GM declared this offseason amid much lobbying from the right side of his infield, you want this signing so badly, then, Freddie, you own it.

“I was the one who pretty much said we need to get him,” Freeman said Saturday with a big spring smile. “(Anthopoulos) actually listened to me and said everything that happens with Brian this year is on me.”

Of course, the belief coming in is that it’s going to work out splendidly. Sentimental favorites get such broad benefit of the doubt.

This is the one-time member of the “Baby Braves” of 2005 we’re talking about here, a fan fav, the home-grown catcher who spent his first nine seasons with the Braves, seven of them All-Star worthy. He left for New York for a princely sum (five years, $85 million). Won a World Series with Houston. And then circled back to where he began, plucked off baseball’s idea of a discount rack by the Braves for one year and $2 million.

Not that he’s measuring this move on a crass monetary basis.

“We’ve got a chance to do some great things,” McCann said upon reporting to Braves spring training, a place he knows so well he should wear a Disney nameplate to work. “And I’m looking forward to putting this uniform back on. I keep saying that – but it’s special to me.”

“I don’t know if I’ve been to camp and seen one guy who’s as excited about being here and excited about getting his year going as that man,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of McCann.

The Braves signed McCann in late November, one week after the team’s catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki was officially cleaved (Washington signing Suzuki). He and Flowers now surely make up the most hairless catching duo in baseball, Liberty Media further benefitting by big savings in clubhouse shampoo costs. It’s also a reunion of sort for two original Braves draft picks – McCann in the second round of 2002, Flowers the 33rd round of 2005.

“I think he was a big part of the reason I got traded away from Atlanta before,” Flowers said.

So, then, we’re able to report that Flowers holds this seething resentment toward his new partner behind the plate?

Flowers laughed. And said, “Nah, (a trade to the White Sox) got me to the big leagues probably three years sooner than I would have.”

The Braves didn’t acquire McCann in order to rekindle fond memories. What he meant to the Braves in the past may have certain value in the marketing department, but it will move the 2019 standings not at all.

The only gift a catcher doesn’t lose to time – the only one that actually improves with age – is experience. McCann has plenty of that to lend to a young pitching staff in need of a career GPS.

Even before starting to work with McCann in Florida, starter Mike Foltynewicz was introduced to his catcher’s enlightened work habits.

“What are you doing here?” Foltynewicz asked, bumping into McCann at SunTrust Park in late offseason. A group of pitchers worked out there regularly this winter.

“Watching tape of you guys,” McCann answered.

Consider him impressed. “He’s coming in, taking time out of his day in the offseason, watching hours of video getting to know all the dudes he’s got to catch this spring training,” Foltynewicz said.

That speaks to the kind of presence Freeman dearly wanted in his clubhouse.

“If we couldn’t get Kurt back, Brian was a guy we needed in this clubhouse.,” Freeman said. “I’ve been telling everyone it can be Aug. 2 and you’re in a 1-4 spin and he’ll walk in and you’ll feel like you’re 5-0. And that’s what you need. That’s what we had when I was younger. The David Rosses, the Brian McCanns keep the clubhouse together.”

But let’s go beyond the gut and get down to the cold, unfeeling numbers. The McCann who left Atlanta the first time was one of those rare catchers who beyond running a game from behind the plate could also dictate to it while standing up over the plate. He’s a six-time Silver Slugger Award winner as the top hitter in his league at his position.

Yet last season in Houston, hobbled by a right-knee issue that required midseason surgery and limited to just 63 games, McCann endured career lows in batting average (.212), slugging percentage (.339) and OPS (.640). Those same numbers over the whole of his previous nine seasons with the Braves: .277/.473/.823. Those are like the quotients of two different players.

He’ll turn 35 on Wednesday. That’s simple chronology. Heaven knows what he is in catching years.

Still, along with the rejuvenating experience of coming back home to play, McCann said the surgery to repair his knee has worked wonders. It so ached a year ago that it hurt to squat – kind of a requisite for a catcher, as the use of beach chairs is frowned upon. And it provided no stability for him as he tried to hit.

“Now that I got the knee fixed, it’s as good as it has been in years,” McCann said.

“I feel great. My joints feel great. I still feel I can catch a full season. We’ll see what happens.” He won’t, however, be asked to catch a full season. Given that Flowers hit .348 off left-handed pitching last season – while McCann hit .200 – the platoon possibilities are self-evident.

The image of McCann at his peak is fixed in the collective memory of the Braves following. But can this older version be fairly expected to play up to that best last vision? Can this McCann approach that McCann?

“A hundred percent,” this McCann answered. “That’s the plan. I feel great. C’mon, let’s go, I’m excited. I feel healthy. I feel I can drive a baseball again.”

“When he’s healthy and his legs are under him, I don’t know why he couldn’t be (what he was),” Snitker said. “This guy was born to hit. I think the sky’s the limit for him. I don’t put any limitations on him.”

And if for some as-yet unseen reason he disappoints, if he can’t quite play the old hits the way he used to, just lay the fault on Freddie.