ATLANTA — As media members jostled for position around Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis, the Braves’ late-inning stars against the Twins Tuesday night, Brian McCann’s whereabouts remained unclear.
The team’s starting catcher was coming off one of his best games since returning from shoulder rehab, but there was no one there clamoring for a quote. It was late, nearing midnight, and McCann’s production came in the game’s early going.
And yet it was McCann who, in large part, carried the day for the Atlanta offense until the bullpen relinquished a small lead in the eighth, paving the way for Gattis’ third pinch-hit home run and Freeman’s walk-off bloop single. The 28-year-old finished 3-for-4 with a solo home run and two RBI.
When one of the best catchers of the past decade notches a game-high in hits and RBI he typically warrants interview buzz, but on a night of a rain delay and an extra inning, McCann made it out without talking about his fast start (0.7 wins above replacement in 47 plate appearances), his health or the competition he’s being given by the team’s ninth-inning miracle worker (Gattis).
Even his manager, Fredi Gonzalez, appeared mildly surprised there was no mention of his No. 5 hitter’s continued success in his own post-game interview.
There’s little debate that McCann, with his past successes and post-surgery resurgence being taken into the equation, is the best offensive option for the Braves behind the plate at this point. That’s not a knock on veteran backup Gerald Laird or Gattis. In fact, quite the opposite. All three players have produced. McCann is just off to a hot (and consistent) start. We are just 12 games into the 2013 season as far as McCann’s production is concerned, and his lows have been short-lived, reaching base in 10 games already.
He leads Atlanta’s three-headed catching unit in batting average, OPS+, and walks per nine innings.
The problem, at least where those outside the Braves organization are concerned, is that there is no definitive truth dictating what the team should do in terms of day-to-day maintenance at catcher. It’s a good problem to have, one evolving from having too much of a good thing. It takes one look at Tuesday night’s results to understand that numerous MLB clubs would gladly make room for Gattis in their everyday lineup — the Twins, in fact, come to mind here — and, to a slightly lesser extent, the same goes for Laird.
In terms of WAR, the Braves are employing three of the top 28 catchers of the 2013 season right now.
But there’s only (well, presumably) so much Gonzalez can do to ensure all three players stay comfortable and in a positive rhythm.
Plus, is there any guarantee that McCann’s strong early numbers are still there without the frequent rest he’s received? It’s an interesting point of discussion: Monday’s outing against the Twins counted as the third time the six-time All-Star has not played since returning to the active roster — either due to rest, at-bats for Gattis and Laird or to couple Laird with rookie Julio Teheran — as Gonzalez and the organization are easing him into the campaign’s grind, making sure to gauge just how much he can handle in the early going.
Gonzalez said he will send out his “B-team” to play the series finale on a quick turnaround (first pitch scheduled for 12:10 p.m.), and one would have to assume that means Gattis or Laird will get the nod.
The organization does not seem to keen on letting McCann catch 19 innings in the matter of 16 hours.
The bottom line, though, is that the team is winning regardless of who is behind the plate. McCann has proven to be the most consistent bat, but all three guys have brought different strengths to the team. Could Brian McCann provide three pinch-hit home runs to help secure three comebacks? Could Gattis handle a 150-game workload as a rookie, managing the ins and outs of the staff while putting up McCann-like offensive numbers?
Perhaps the simplest answer is that, as long as the franchise remains on course for a World Series run and his players are content, Gonzalez is not facing an ultimatum. He has the option, every day, of throwing out the best and healthiest lineup possible. That’s it. If that means Laird is guiding rookie Julio Teheran through an 8 1/3-inning gem or McCann is resting two of three games against Minnesota for scheduling purposes, then so be it.
After Gattis hit his game-tying home run to keep the Braves’ hopes for a five-game winning streak alive, he found Gonzalez in the dugout and thanked him for the opportunity to save the day. Think about that: Gattis thanked Gonzalez, the rescuer thanking the rescued. It sounds like the rookie is fine backing up McCann and making the most out of his chances when they present themselves.
Though he was nowhere to be found in a rushed, fatigued Atlanta locker room Tuesday night, it’s safe to say Brian McCann was equally content with another standout performance.
It’s also not a stretch to assume the long-time Atlanta starter wants as much playing as possible, especially while on this hot streak, but as of Tuesday night it’s his job to share.