Tuesday Brian McCann had surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn labrum. According to reports by both Mark Bowman and David O’Brien the damage found once they could actually see the labrum was worse than expected. As a result McCann will require up to six months of rehab meaning he won’t be game ready when next season starts. According to Bowman:
. . .”This timetable would allow McCann to begin light baseball-related workouts around the start of Spring Training. If he needs a full six months to complete his rehab, he would not be cleared to begin playing until mid-April, or approximately two weeks after Opening Day. . .”
It’s a surgery I expected to happen after the news can out that his labrum was frayed and there was a cyst in the shoulder in August. I’m not a doctor but two things led me to that decision. As it happens I also have a “frayed” labrum that requires surgery so in a small way I know what that feels like. More importantly I watched him grimace in pain when swinging a bat. Catcher’s are tough animals, they get beaten all over their body on a daily basis during the season but rarely do you see one show any outwards sign of how badly an injury affects them.
With that in mind and watching his numbers as well as his swings and throws, I wrote back in August that they should put him on the DL and get a health catcher to split the duties with David Ross.
A Difference of Opinion
While the announcement wasn’t a surprise. that a disagreement between McCann and the GM as recently as 10 days ago about the need for an operation did raise a red flag of sorts.
On October 6, McCann told O’Brien
“We already basically know what is going to happen, what needs to happen,” McCann said. “I think it’s going to be [a matter of] how long I’m out for. Could be a couple of months, it could be a little more than that. Could be four or five months. We’ll see what happens. We’ll find out. I can’t really say right now, but I’m pretty sure surgery.”
In the same post GM Frank Wren had a different view.
“I think we first have to determine if surgery is necessary — that hasn’t been determined yet. . . From what we know it would not be a surgical repair. . .during the season we can’t do the MRI with injection because you’re down too long
. . . once he has the MRI and we know totally and get the medical report — but from what we know now, the prescribed treatment is rest.”
Players don’t want to go under the knife – or in this case the scope- so when McCann said he needed surgery it speaks volumes about how badly he was hurting. The GM’s statement leads me to believe he didn’t know or at best wasn’t conviunced. It also indicated this disagreement wasn’t new and the team decided he should continue to play instead of seeking a definitive evaluation using the most reliable diagnostic techniques available because they were in a pennant race.
We know McCann wanted to play; McCann always wants to play and I applaud that. In this case however his reported disappointment at not playing could well have meant that if they weren’t going to get the necessary diagnostic MRI, he might as well just play. Even if he really wanted to play and thought he could, what he wanted should have been taken a back seat to what he actually needed. The team has a responsibility to protect the player’s long term health as well as the condition of a highly valued Braves asset. Those needs should have taken precedence over everything else. This isn’t the Stephen Strasburg situation where a healthy player is told he can’t play and costs the team victories. McCann was injured, playing poorly and sadly very replaceable.
Was he replaceable?
Using 20/20 hindsight, McCann’s shoulder was more than likely damaged when the season started. A look at his production month to month shows that only July after he had multiple injections to reduce inflammation in the shoulder – was close to his normal production. When the shots couldn’t keep the pain at bay he was became a liability at the plate and behind it.
Those numbers from a purely statistical point of view were not the Brian McCann we all know. He was no doubt working with the trainers every day to stay on the field but the team should have realized this wasn’t a slump. Their perennial All Star, Silver Slugger catcher had become a consistently statistically replaceable player over night. Of the 38 catchers who played at least 75 games this year McCann’s relative slash ranked 24th/24th/25th and while he had 20 homers, 18 of them came before August.
What forest, all I see are trees?
After seeing Jason Heyward play through a shoulder injury last year when he should have been resting it and allowing it to heal, one might have thought that the team would be more aware and ready to react to such things. We forget sometimes that these are human beings embroiled in the heat of a pennant race. The lineup was struggling with Dan Uggla hitting more like Mario Mendoza than himself and had become a feast or famine group than consistently productive unit. So it’s understandable that those closest to the situation – his teammates and skipper Fredi Gonzalez– might not see how badly McCann had to be hurting. Someone however should have seen it and that responsibility falls on the trainers and the front office. While trainers see the players daily they have to rely on what the player tells them and let’s face it, some players are less than forthcoming about their real pain particularly in an environment where being macho is hailed; the old 80% of McCann is better than a 100% of his replacement cliche. The front office however is supposed to see that something is more than just a little out of whack and that McCann wasn’t near to 50% of the player he had always been. I suspect some conversations were had about it and I understand not wanting to remove a player so important to the team psychologically from the lineup. However, they get paid to make the hard calls and they missed this one badly.
I understand not using J. C. Boscan to platoon with David Ross who was carrying a rib cage injury himself from August on but the Braves had Jose Yepez at Gwinnett and veteran catchers were flying around the trade and free agent market all year long; many were effectively free. The Nationals for example, picked up Kurt Suzuki on 3 August for a low level minor player and Oakland paid Suzuki’s salary for the rest of the year. Who the replacement might have been is moot. Good Serviceable replacements were available but the Braves opted – according to the GM’s statement – not to get a definitive diagnosis of the severity McCann’s shoulder injury because he might have been unavailable for a week or two afterwards. That isn’t a long term view nor is it the way a caring organization treats players.
All decisions have consequences of course and this one is no exception. Some are obvious others are not. Lets do a quick review.
- The delayed diagnosis obviously delayed the surgery making it likely the McCann won’t be ready for the start of the season.
- His potential unavailability for at least the early part of next season makes signing Ross again a priority but also means there’s a need to have another catcher on the roster who can spell Ross.
- Continuing to play with a cyst in his shoulder and a damaged labrum undoubtedly made things worse. Earlier treatment might well have allowed an easier recovery and in any event his rehab would have been over well before the start of the 2013 season.
- How does the player feel about it really? McCann would never say a word against the organization but as there will be no extension in Atlanta this post season, it could affect his decision following his walk yea. Assuming he’s healthy and has a good year, lots of teams will offer him a lot more money than Atlanta could reasonably offer.
- Will other players look at this – and in retrospect the decision to keep Jason Heyward on the field when he was clearly injured in 2011 – and wonder if the Braves care as much as they used to?
That’s a Wrap
We won’t find out the how this plays out for a long time. Money is a factor of course. The Braves might not pick up McCann’s option and instead offer him a reduced contract with incentives. It’s not likely another team would give him more until he proves himself healthy and back to his previous form. I do expect them to pick it up if for no other reason than to honor his previous play. I also expect Ross will get a new contract fairly quickly but the Braves will probably wait until the last minute to pick up catching help if needed. More worrisome from my point of view is a trend towards treating players less like valuable assets and members of the Braves family and more like pieces of property. While baseball is a business and all players play hurt a good portion of the year, there’s a huge difference between hurt and injured. Players will try to play when they shouldn’t. It’s up to management to recognize the difference and protect the players health as well as the long term value of the player to the team. This time they blew it.