At 15-6, the Braves have the major's best record, not to mention the best run differential (+41), and things are about to get even better for them. Brian McCann, who has yet to play this season following offseason shoulder surgery, will begin a rehab assignment with the team's Single-A Rome affiliate on Friday night.
When healthy, the 29-year-old McCann ranks among the game's elite catchers. From 2006-2011, his first six full seasons, he hit a combined .287 /.359/.491 while averaging 22 homers and 3.4 Wins Above Replacement, made the NL All-Star team each year, and was even the MVP of the 2010 game, when his three-run double provided all of the NL's scoring. Though he did hit 20 homers in 487 plate appearances last year, McCann slumped to a .230/.300/.399 showing due to a torn labrum and a cyst, both in his right (throwing) shoulder; the injury made him prone to subluxation (partial dislocation) while hitting. He was particularly ineffective over the final two months of the season (.201/.280/.261 after July 31), so when the Braves made it to the NL wild-card game, he rode the bench while David Ross started.
McCann underwent surgery on Oct. 16, a procedure for which the recovery is generally six months, so it was something of a surprise when the Braves let Ross, "The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher," depart as a free agent. Instead, the team signed Gerald Laird to a two-year, $3 million deal, just under half of what Ross got from the Red Sox. Laird, who was behind the plate on Opening Day, is off to an 8-for-25 start, but the real story of the Braves' catching situation thus far has been the work of 26-year-old rookie Evan Gattis, who has started 13 of the team's 21 games.
What's remarkable about Gattis isn't just that he's bashed six homers in his first 68 plate appearances en route to a lopsided but potent .246/.309/.607 line, or done good work behind the plate as well. It's that he took a particularly roundabout route to the majors. After graduating high school in 2004, he planned to attend Texas A&M, but fear of failing a drug test led him to be steered into a rehab program, and then into treatment for anger and depression issues. A knee injury caused him to walk away from baseball after one year at Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma, and he spent time bouncing around the country as a cook, valet and ski-lift operator.
After four years away from baseball, Gattis returned via the Division III University of Texas-Permian Basin team, and was impressive enough that the Braves made him a 23rd round draft pick in 2010. Facing much younger competition, he showed plus-plus power in the low minors, hitting .322/.386/.601 with 22 homers at Rome in 2011, then .305/.389/.607 with 18 homers, nine apiece at High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi last year. Even with just 49 games of experience at Double-A, he earned a spot on Atlanta's roster with a strong spring, then homered off Roy Halladay in his second big league plate appearance on April 2.
McCann's eventual return to the Braves, which has been further delayed by soreness in his right wrist, won't mean the end of Gattis' stint. He has minor league experience at both first base and leftfield, and made three starts at first during Freddie Freeman's time on the disabled list in addition to his time as catcher. Manager Fredi Gonzalez plans to find playing time for the rookie. "It's easy because when 'Mac' comes back he's not going to be the 'Mac' of two years ago where you run him out there for 10 days in a row… He's not going to be able to do that, or we don't want him to do that. It will work its way out.” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently.
McCann's future may be cloudier. He's in the final year of a seven-year, $41.3 million deal with Atlanta, making $12 million in what was originally a club option. Though he's a Georgia native, he's not guaranteed to stick around. In addition to Laird and Gattis — who still has a whole lot to prove before he can legitimately be considered a threat to McCann's job — the Braves have a solid catching prospect in 21-year-old Christian Bethancourt, who struggled offensively at Double-A last year but is considered an outstanding defender with elite arm strength, which earned him a spot on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects list at number 93.
Meanwhile, as we've pointed out in this space, most of the top catchers are tied up via long-term deals; via 2012's WAR rankings, seven of the top 10 are under club control through at least 2017, and only one of the other three, 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz, will be a free agent this winter. If McCann proves healthy upon returning, he'll set himself up for a sizable payday from a team with a hole behind the plate — a list that may include the suddenly less financially restrained Yankees. That's a problem for a later date. For the moment, the Braves are off to their best start since 1997 thanks the league's best run prevention and the offensive work of Justin Upton (.316/.402/.797), Chris Johnson (.397/.424/.556), Juan Francisco (.316/.339/.544) and Gattis, none of whom are likely to maintain their torrid paces. At the very least, the return of McCann will provide them with significant depth, and at most, the team will have its most decorated player back in the middle of the order.