HAMMOCK: Braves' long-term relationship with McCann about to hit crucial stretch

Brian McCann looks on with dismay during the Braves' 7-1 loss Tuesday to the Phillies.

Brian McCann looks on with dismay during the Braves' 7-1 loss Tuesday to the Phillies.

The importance of the 2012 baseball can't be understated for Brian McCann, his many fans and the Atlanta Braves organization.

What happens over the next year or two will determine the future arc of McCann's career, of the catcher who has become such a team leader and of the countless backers the Duluth grad has in this area.

Atlanta locked up McCann back in 2007 for a contract that ran through 2012, with a club option for 2013. Now it's getting close to decision time for the Braves, who must determine before long whether to pursue a long-term deal that keeps the homegrown star, who turned 28 last week, a Brave for life.

It seems like a no-brainer to me.

McCann has become Atlanta's most consistent hitter since his arrival in the big leagues, hitting .286 with 136 home runs and 537 RBIs and becoming the franchise's first player to be an All-Star his first six full seasons. He's won five Silver Slugger Awards as the National League's best-hitting catcher and he's one of the two best-hitting catchers in baseball along with the Twins' Joe Mauer (who signed an eight-year, $184 million contract in 2010).

Mauer's on-field production, like McCann's, is well above average for a catcher, but the two also provide something else to their teams. Mauer is a homegrown Minnesota kid, the face of the franchise. McCann is the same kind of guy for Atlanta -- a product of the local suburbs who has become the team's most popular player.

He's also a clubhouse leader, ready to take over the main role when veteran Chipper Jones (who turns 40 in April) retires, much like Chipper took over as the leader when John Smoltz moved on. The Braves made the right decision back in 2000 by signing Chipper to a six-year deal -- when he was at roughly the same point in his career as McCann is now -- and have the chance to act accordingly with their star catcher.

It's also important for McCann to show his long-term worth this season, particularly after last season's surprising late-season slump. A hitting machine since he first picked up a baseball bat, he struggled to the finish after returning from an oblique injury and the Braves collapsed simultaneously to miss the postseason.

With the injury behind him and the motivation of last year's finish in his head, McCann should be primed for another big year in 2012. If he produces another McCann-like season and makes a seventh All-Star appearance, it will make the Braves' decision even easier.

They'll have no choice but to pay up.

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock. For Hammock's blog, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willsworld.