15. Is Brian McCann ready to be a starter?

Is Brian McCann ready to take over as Atlanta's starting catcher in 2006? Bill Shanks answers that question as we continue our 35-part series on the top issues facing the Braves this winter.

The answer to this question is pretty easy: ABSOLUTELY.

It was almost like a blessing in disguise for the Braves. Johnny Estrada got hurt in the collision with Darin Erstad of the Angels, and then in that same week in June Eddie Perez went down with a shoulder injury. The Braves called up a 21-year-old catcher from AA Mississippi. Was Brian McCann 100% ready? Probably not. But even 90% of a great prospect is better than what some big leaguers can give you.

It didn't take John Smoltz to understand how good this kid is. He watched McCann catch Kyle Davies in Brian's first big league start and promptly told Bobby Cox that he had a new personal catcher. All Smoltz did was get on a roll in the middle of the season that helped propel the Braves into first place, and he gave McCann a lot of the credit.

Even after Estrada came back, McCann was really the number one catcher. Sure, Estrada wasn't 100% healthy, but he was also no longer the best catcher on the Atlanta roster.

Brian McCann is going to be a great major league catcher. I've said it before and I'll say it again, he's another Jason Varitek. He's going to provide 20-25 home runs a season from the left side of the plate, hit .300 some day, and defensively he'll be the leader on the field. Pitchers love throwing to him, and when he's out there, he's in charge.

McCann still has some work to do, but heck, he'll be 22 next year. He's only going to get better. One thing about him is he's very hard on himself to continue to succeed. He wants to be the best catcher he can be, and he's not going to ever rest until he becomes the catcher he feels he can be, and even then he's going to keep working to stay at that level. He‘s the son of a coach (former Marshall head coach Howie McCann), so he's got that great work ethic that most coaches sons have.

McCann was upset about his low percentage of throwing runners out when he was in the big leagues, but holding runners on was never a priority for our pitching staff. Maybe now that will change. Even so, expect McCann to work on that next spring with Chino Cadahia, the Braves' minor league field coordinator who works a lot with our catchers and who is credited with helping Pudge Rodriguez become a future Hall-of-Famer.

Of course, the most immediate question is whether or not he's ready to take over as the full-time catcher next season? I see no reason why he's not ready for that task. Johnny Estrada was a good catcher for us in 2004, and his injuries definitely curtailed his production in 2005. But McCann has a lot more to offer. He's got more power, more run production potential, and is a better defensive catcher.

The Braves need to take advantage of Estrada's value, and perhaps get a solid pitcher for him in a deal. If Estrada were to hang around next year and platoon a bit with McCann, it would decrease Estrada's value. And McCann is good enough to get the majority of playing time. The Braves just need to go out and get a veteran catcher to become McCann's backup.

Brian McCann is going to be our starting catcher for a very long time. Yeah, we know, there's that kid with the long name down there, and there is zero doubt that Jarrod Saltalamacchia could make things interesting in a couple of years. But that's then, right now McCann is the clear favorite to be our next Javy Lopez, a man who held down that position for a decade (which doesn't happen very often).

McCann is ready for this opportunity. He and his best friend, Jeff Francoeur, are fully aware of the responsibility in front of them, and they want the task of getting the Braves back to the World Series. This kid is only going to get better, which makes the next few years awfully exciting to think about.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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