Thursday night, as Atlanta fans welcome back icon Chipper Jones to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, they may begin saying goodbye to another local favorite.
Brian McCann was born in Athens, Ga. He went to high school in Duluth. He was drafted by the hometown Braves in 2002. He lives in nearby Suwanee. More than a decade later, McCann’s favorite team as a kid remains the only organization he’s known. But that could change soon.
McCann, 29, will be a free agent after this season. The Braves have younger, cheaper options at catcher, Evan Gattis and Christian Bethancourt. And the team may need to allocate McCann’s salary – $12 million this year – to other areas of the roster.
It appears more likely than not that McCann will play elsewhere in 2014, but teammates have marveled at his focus and production even while battling injuries in 2013. McCann didn’t make his season debut until May 6 but still finished with at least 20 home runs for the sixth consecutive year.
“Just like I expected,” admired fellow Braves catcher Gerald Laird. “He’s the complete big league guy. Nothing seems to faze him. He had a plan, where he knew he was going to be out for the first month (after right shoulder surgery). He stuck with that plan, came back, hit 20 home runs, was a big part of our success and proved to a lot of people that he’s healthy again.
“He’s as good as it gets. I know how good he was, watching him and playing against him. You never know, defensively, how the arm’s going to come back. He’s been fine back there. His swing seems to be back. He’s throwing the ball better and better. He’s exactly what I expected. Playing one year with Yadi (Molina in St. Louis), then coming here and playing with him, they’re the complete package.”
Laird spent the 2011 season with the Cardinals and witnessed the last months of Albert Pujols’ tenure there. Laird acknowledged that he has a similar feeling about McCann now.
“He has a sense a little bit, too,” Laird said of McCann. “These guys got Gatti coming up, then the Bethancourt kid. They’ve got some money tied in other places, a lot of good players going to arbitration – especially the guy at first base (MVP candidate Freddie Freeman). They have to get some guys locked in. (Andrelton) Simmons is going to be a special player. I think (McCann) understands the process.
“It’s just tough. He’s from here. He’s always been here. He knows nothing else. But I think he knows his time’s coming, (and he’s handling it) in the perfect way. He’s one of the fan favorites. He knows the city. He knows his teammates. He’s always the same. That’s the best part about him. You can’t teach that. That’s why his teammates have all the respect for him, and why it’s going to be tough to see him go.”
But perhaps McCann can do in 2013 what Pujols did two years ago – win a World Series title on the way out.
A few more notes during my favorite week of the baseball season:
•Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez faced a number of difficult choices with his 25-man National League Division Series roster. Ultimately, veterans Dan Uggla, Paul Maholm and Scott Downs didn’t make the cut. Jose Constanza, David Hale and Alex Wood were among the lesser-known names picked ahead of them.
Did Gonzalez make the right call? We’ll find out if Hale or Wood is summoned from the bullpen with the tying run on second in the eighth inning. In the meantime, I’m willing to credit Gonzalez and the Braves for doing what all fans ask of their teams: The Braves took the most talented 25 players right now, regardless of salary or tenure.
Uggla is the team’s highest-paid player. B.J. Upton, last winter’s splashy signing, will be on the bench. The Braves can’t afford to be sentimental if they want to beat the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers. In that respect, they’re off to a good start.
•The Dodgers will be viewed as favorites to beat the Braves, but I’m not sure L.A. is as invincible as the 42-8 midseason run would indicate. Atlanta has home-field advantage, and the Dodgers are shorthanded. Matt Kemp is out. Andre Ethier likely will be limited to pinch hitting during the NLDS. And shortstop Hanley Ramirez — who powered the team as much as Yasiel Puig ever did — is dealing with an on-again, off-again sciatic nerve problem in his lower back.
The Dodgers’ counter-argument is that they’ve dealt with injuries all year. And that is true. But the World Series is often won by the team that peaks at the right time. The zenith of the Dodgers’ season came in July and August.
•The Pirates scored the fewest runs of any team to reach the postseason, and yet I’ve come to believe that their lineup — as presently constituted — is underrated.
The midseason acquisitions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd lengthened the batting order considerably. Morneau took a series of excellent at-bats in Tuesday’s wild-card win over Cincinnati. Byrd, the 12-year veteran, homered in the first postseason plate appearance of his career. Veteran catcher Russell Martin slugged two home runs from the seventh spot.
I believe the Pirates will win one of the first two games of their NLDS in St. Louis. Then they will return to raucous PNC Park, where, as Andrew McCutchen told me Tuesday night, “When you play us, you play the whole city.”
•I’ll leave you with this thought: If the Dodgers and Pirates meet in the National League Championship Series, we may see a Van Slyke jersey on the field again during a postseason game in Pittsburgh: Scott Van Slyke — Andy’s son — is a Dodgers outfielder.