It was a business last season, when Braves catcher Brian McCann played hurt and, according to several former teammates, grew frustrated when management did not sufficiently acknowledge his condition or sacrifice.
And it will be a business this offseason, when McCann becomes a free agent and, if healthy, likely draws interest from several high-revenue clubs, including one that expressed interest in him after last season, the Texas Rangers.
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The worst is behind McCann, who is expected to return in mid-April from surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He said he is excited by his progress, excited by his team’s prospects and open to remaining with his hometown team, even while some of his friends believe he’s a goner.
General manager Frank Wren, seeking to ensure that the two sides maintain a positive relationship, said he reached out to McCann with a telephone call after last season ended.
“I felt like we needed to sit down and have a good discussion, and we did,” Wren said. “I don’t know that it was as much ‘repair’ as it was having a chance to have a good, open discussion about the present, future and getting ready for 2013.”
Still, while McCann and the Braves seemingly are back on good terms — McCann disputes talk of a disconnect with the front office, saying, “it wasn’t like that at all” — dollars alone might drive the two sides apart.
A big bounce-back year by McCann likely would price him out of the Braves’ plans. A poor year would raise the question of whether the team would even want him — except, perhaps, for a low guarantee on a short-term deal.
The Braves were unwilling to give McCann an extension similar to Yadier Molina’s five-year, $75 million deal last spring after McCann struggled and missed time in the second half of 2011 due to a strained left oblique.
McCann then faded again in ’12, playing in pain throughout the second half, receiving two cortisone shots in his shoulder and then undergoing surgery in mid-October.
He will be 30 by the time he starts his next contract. He has caught nearly 1,000 games in the majors, and the Braves would be reasonably well-positioned if he departed.
The team’s top catching prospect, Christian Bethancourt, could be ready by next season. Evan Gattis, a potential late bloomer at 26, could be another option. Gerald Laird, the new backup catcher, is just starting a two-year deal.
Of course, the entire dynamic might have been different if McCann had acted selfishly and opted for surgery in the middle of last season, ensuring he would be 100 percent for the start of his free-agent year.
Wren acknowledged that “a lot of guys would have (shut it down), saying, ‘I’ve got to make sure I get this fixed and am ready to go.’” But McCann, with the Braves in contention, said he didn’t want to leave the team in a bind.
“If we weren’t in the position we were in, I would definitely have gotten the surgery,” McCann said. “Being in the position we were in, the chance to win a World Series, I was going to delay the surgery until we found out what was happening (with the team).”
He knew, everyone knew, that the Braves needed him. McCann’s backup at the time, David Ross, was not an everyday player. The next option after Ross, J.C. Boscan, had begun the season with only two games of major-league experience.
The problem was McCann said he couldn’t attack the baseball the way he normally does while protecting his front shoulder, and he couldn’t extend his swing without feeling a painful pinch. He ended up batting only .201 with two home runs in his final 39 games.
His shoulder did not bother him when throwing. He still felt he could contribute, mixing in singles, handling the pitching staff. But all the while, he sensed that surgery was inevitable.
“I knew,” he said. “I knew in August. Professional athletes know their body. They know what they’re feeling.
“Over my career, I’ve dealt with soreness. I can distinguish between the two. It wasn’t just one of those things that was going to go away. I felt like it was only going to get worse.”
And then his differences with the Braves began.
The Braves, after McCann underwent an MRI in August, said the catcher had a shoulder subluxation, or partial dislocation. McCann called that diagnosis “false” in an interview with David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying he had a cyst and a frayed labrum. A Braves official told O’Brien that the cyst and frayed labrum were directly related to the subluxation.
The day after the season ended, the two sides still couldn’t agree on how McCann should proceed. McCann said he was “pretty sure” he would need surgery, while Wren said, “from what we know, it would not be a surgical repair.”
Wren, however, allowed that a contrast MRI might reveal a greater problem. McCann waited to undergo such an MRI until after the season because it required an injection and would have sidelined him for too long.
As it turned out, McCann had a tear in his labrum, a larger tear than even the contrast MRI revealed.
“There was just no way of knowing,” Wren said.
Medicine isn’t an exact science; it isn’t unusual for a player and team to take different views on a player’s condition. But the Braves, by downplaying the possibility that McCann would need surgery, may have created the perception — however unwittingly — that McCann’s injury was less serious than it turned out to be.
That was one rub, according to McCann’s friends. Another was the Braves’ decision to start Ross over McCann in the wild-card playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The decision was entirely justified, given the way the two catchers were playing. Ross gave it further credence by going 3-for-4 with a two-run homer in the Braves’ 6-3 defeat. But two of McCann’s former teammates called it “the final straw,” given McCann’s sacrifice and past accomplishments.
Five months later, McCann does not endorse that view.
“I’m not here to say I should have played in that game or shouldn’t have played in that game,” he said. “We had by far the best backup catcher in the game. I couldn’t have been happier for Rossie. He’s one of my best friends in the game.
“It was just a mix of emotions. Did I want to be out there and play in that game? Absolutely. At the same time, the guy who was playing for me was playing unbelievable. I can’t argue with the decision.”
The Braves obviously value McCann, a six-time All-Star with a .279 lifetime batting average and .826 OPS. Wren said the team rejected trade overtures from the Rangers before exercising McCann’s $12 million option at the end of October, explaining, “We were not in that mode.”
Of course, how much the Braves value McCann beyond this season remains to be seen.
“We haven’t made any determination one way or the other — we’ll see how this season plays out,” Wren said. “Mac has been so good here for so long, we want to be open-minded and see how it can work for both of us.”
McCann, in turn, said, “I grew up (in Duluth, Ga). I went to high school 20 miles north of the stadium. This is where I spent my life. I grew up a Braves fan. I love it here.”
But . . .
“I also know that it’s a business, and that it’s out of my control,” McCann continued. “All I can control is getting my shoulder back healthy, getting back to being better than I’ve ever been.”
He’s working on that. The rest will take care of itself.