Pivotal year awaits for Brian McCann

On the day of his retirement announcement last spring, Chipper Jones took a swing at identifying his successor as the future face of the Atlanta Braves. With all due respect and fondness for Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, Jones gave his blessing to a guy who spends half his time squatting in the dirt while wearing a mask.

"I'd like to say it's Brian McCann,'' Jones told reporters in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. "He's a great kid. He's a great player, and he's the kind of guy you want to build a ballclub around. It would be sad to see him go somewhere else. Unfortunately, the business and economics of baseball may not allow it to happen.''

The endorsement made perfect sense given that McCann grew up 20 miles from Atlanta and has compiled an admirable track record in seven full seasons with the Braves. But the passage of time has done more to blur McCann's status than bring a sense of clarity to it.

McCann, a six-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger Award winner, has reached what is commonly referred to as a crossroads. After hitting a career-low .230 with a .698 OPS last season, he underwent surgery last October to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Although McCann is recovering nicely, he faces the added pressure of free agency in November. Like his buddy Chipper, he might have a farewell tour in his future very soon.

It would be easy for McCann to wax nostalgic at a time like this, but he's resolute as he approaches what could be his final season in Atlanta. He's less concerned with his next contract and his long-term future than the health of his shoulder, the state of his swing and the impact those two things could have on the 2013 Braves.

"I just know it's a business,'' McCann said by phone this week. "That's something I've learned over the years. You're not always going to get what you want. At the end of the day, we're employees. Would I love to stay here? Absolutely. But the only thing on my mind right now is to go out there and get healthy.''

McCann's résumé as a hitter speaks quite eloquently on his behalf. Since 2006, he leads major league catchers in home runs (151) and RBIs (581). He's second to Joe Mauer with 207 doubles, and his 929 hits are tied for third behind Mauer and A.J. Pierzynski. Baseball-reference.com's handy similarity scores list former Detroit Tigers standout Lance Parrish as his closest offensive comparable through age 28.

But health problems in 2012 revealed a different Brian McCann than Braves fans are accustomed to seeing. The shoulder hurt every time McCann tried to extend his arm during his swing, and he took a lot of pained, conflicted hacks that resulted in him fouling off fat pitches and topping weak grounders to second base. The low point came in the wild-card play-in game when Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez sat McCann and started backup David Ross, who homered and singled twice in a 6-3 loss to St. Louis.

In addition, McCann strayed from the approach that made him so successful earlier in his career. He had always prided himself on using the entire field, but acknowledges that he became too pull-happy in 2011 and 2012. McCann lapsed into some bad habits when he tried to return too quickly from an oblique injury two years ago, and he has yet to regain his stride.

"Early in my career I flew out to left field one too many times, and I got sick of doing that and I went more the route to hit home runs,'' McCann said. "I was able to do that, but my batting average has kind of suffered. What I'm trying to say is, I'm not a .270 hitter.''

Or a .230 hitter. McCann's batting average last season gives him all the motivation he needs amid the drudgery of rehab. He works out regularly with Freeman and fellow Braves Dan Uggla, Kris Medlen and Jonny Venters at the GATA facility in the Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek, and goes in for additional treatment and physical therapy three times a week.

The medical reports are encouraging. Dr. Xavier Duralde, the Braves' team orthopedist, gave him a positive update this week, and McCann has already received clearance to begin throwing. In another two weeks he'll start hitting. His return could come anywhere between Opening Day and May 1, but the most realistic assessment calls for him to rejoin the lineup by mid-April.

McCann's comeback will take place without the burden of contract-related background noise. His agent, B.B. Abbott, and Braves general manager Frank Wren have agreed to table discussions for now, although Wren said the Braves are "open-minded'' about talking during the season.

As the Braves contemplate a potential long-term commitment to McCann, his workload is part of the equation they have to consider. McCann leads big league catchers with 944 games played since 2006, and he might be a better long-term fit in the American League, where he can split time between catching and DHing in the same way that Victor Martinez, Mike Napoli and others have done in recent seasons. Even Mauer is heading in that direction. Last year he started 72 games at catcher and played 30 games at first base while mixing in a career-high 42 appearances at DH.

Right now, the top choices in the 2013-14 free-agent catching crop are McCann, Pierzynski, Carlos Ruiz (coming off a positive amphetamine test), Napoli (dogged by questions about his hip) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It's not far-fetched to think the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Angels and other AL clubs will be intrigued by the prospect of signing a 29-year-old catcher with an .826 career OPS.

"If Brian puts up the type of numbers we all expect him to this year, the Braves will have a big decision to make,'' Abbott said. "This is a guy to build a franchise around on and off the field. He will be a free agent, and as a free agent he will be coveted by AL teams that have the ability to play him 150 games a year at catcher and DH. And left-handed power, especially behind the plate, is not easy to find. The Braves will have to make a decision whether it makes sense for them."

If the end is, indeed, near, some wistfulness is inevitable. McCann still remembers the thrill of monitoring the Internet in his senior year with the Duluth High School Wildcats and learning that the hometown Braves had selected him with the 64th overall pick -- one round after taking hotshot outfielder Jeff Francoeur with their top choice. McCann played a mere 302 games in the minors before collecting two hits and a walk against Dan Haren and the Oakland A's in his big league debut in 2005.

McCann has always been known more for his bat than his defense, and he threw out only 17 of 93 potential base stealers in 2012. But he gained currency in the clubhouse when he continued to play while his shoulder was throbbing and his numbers were taking a dive. He understood the stakes.

"That's just the nature of this game,'' McCann said. "Nobody cares the way you feel. It's a matter of, 'What kind of numbers are you putting up?' I was in a position where I still felt like I could help the team or get a big knock late in the game, so I took the field. Whether it was a good decision or not, it's a decision I made and a decision I have to live with.

"I didn't produce the way I wanted to, but at the same time I can look myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had. I didn't shut it down. I'm OK with that.''

Where do the Braves go if McCann leaves through free agency? Gerald Laird is around through 2014 after signing a two-year contract to replace Ross. Christian Bethancourt, rated the organization's No. 3 prospect by Baseball America, has a .653 OPS in the minors and needs work as a hitter. But he has earned raves for his quick release and agility behind the plate, and some talent evaluators have sized up his rangy frame and athleticism and made comparisons to Benito Santiago.

"He can catch in the major leagues right now,'' a scout said of Bethancourt. "He gets the ball to second base so quickly, he embarrasses guys. They can't even slide.''

The Braves are also intrigued by Evan Gattis, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound slugger with late-bloomer potential and a compelling backstory. They plan to give Gattis a look at both catcher and left field in spring training.

In the end, business is business, and the Braves will have to weigh the pluses and minuses of a long-term commitment to McCann regardless of the sentimental attachments.

"You always want to keep the young players that you've developed and have come through the system,'' Wren said. "But it's not always easy to make that happen. Brian McCann has been such a quality person and performer, he doesn't need to prove anything to us. We've known all about him since the day he put the uniform on as an 18-year-old. Our feelings about him have always been strong, and they remain strong.''

Some athletes eventually learn that the burdens of playing at home outweigh the benefits, and the experience gets old. Not McCann. He realizes how fortunate he is when he wakes up in the Atlanta 'burbs on a game day five minutes from his parents, five minutes from his wife's parents and two minutes from his older brother, Brad. Then he turns the key in the ignition and heads for the ballpark where he attended games as a kid.

"I'm living the dream,'' McCann said.

The dream will continue no matter what comes of McCann's free-agent odyssey. The only question left to be answered is what uniform he'll be wearing.