LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Brian McCann has remained in the shadows as he spent the first month of Spring Training recovering from right shoulder surgery that will force him to miss at least the first two weeks of the season.
But McCann's spirits have brightened as he has spent the past week taking batting practice and playing long toss on the field. This was evident when he arrived at Champion Stadium early Friday morning and greeted his new teammate, Justin Upton, with one of those happy-man hugs that the Braves players have regularly exchanged over the past couple of years.
McCann's excitement grew a few hours later when he took batting practice with his teammates before a split-squad game against the Blue Jays. This marked the third time he took swings on the field since being cleared to do so on Feb. 28.
"I've just got to be smart," McCann said. "Today was a great day. Throwing was better than it has been, and hitting, it was the best I've felt. I'm making the necessary steps forward."
Displaying the pretty left-handed swing that has helped him earn six All-Star selections and win five National League Silver Slugger Awards, McCann sprayed line drives across the field and showed he has already regained a significant amount of strength in his surgically repaired right shoulder.
"I'm very encouraged by the way the ball is coming off [the bat]," McCann said.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was impressed after getting his first chance to see McCann hit on the field.
"I thought his swing looked great," Gonzalez said. "If I hadn't known he had surgery and was doing the rehab thing, I would have thought he was [in] midseason [form]. It was kind of reminiscent because I used to throw [batting practice] to his group, and I didn't see anything out of the ordinary swinging with that shoulder. Those are great signs really. I think he is coming along just fine and I think he is right on schedule."
McCann's next step in the rehab process comes Saturday, when he will again take batting practice and play long toss -- two sets of 20 throws from a distance of 120 feet. This will mark the first time he has completed these exercises on consecutive days this year.
"I've got my really good days and I've got my days where it's not as good," McCann said. "I've just got to stay even-keeled and take the good with the bad. ... Everything the training staff has put in front of me, I've accomplished. I'm moving forward and I'm on schedule."
McCann's excitement has been somewhat tempered by the uncertainty regarding his return. His wish is to make his regular-season debut as Atlanta's starting catcher for the April 16 game against the Royals. This is the first date that he would be permitted to play in a game. But the Braves have not yet told him if it would be possible for him to make his final preparations by playing in Minor League games before this date.
If McCann gets his wish, he will be permitted to play in some Minor League exhibition games before the end of Spring Training. But he understands that this is a wish that might not be granted.
When Braves orthopedic surgeon Dr. Xavier Duralde performed the surgery Oct. 16, he inserted anchors into the posterior portion of McCann's shoulder and repaired a labrum tear that was more significant than expected.
McCann exited the surgery knowing that he would not be cleared to begin playing for six months. But now he is hoping the Braves clear him to play in his first big league game on the six-month anniversary of the surgery.
"I'll know more in a week," McCann said. "I don't know what my schedule is going to be like. It's one of those things, if I come back early and get run over at the plate or something like that, it's not worth it."
This has the makings to be the most important season McCann has experienced since debuting with the Braves in 2005. Along with still being one of the key players in Atlanta's potent lineup, he is entering the final year of his contract and staring at the payday that could await him on next year's free-agent market.
If McCann has a big season, he will increase the likelihood of gaining a big contract, quite possibly from an American League club that could use him as a catcher and designated hitter. If he struggles, the Braves will have reason to be more hesitant to offer a contract to a 30-year-old catcher who has not been the same since coming back too early from an oblique injury in August 2011.
While hitting 20 home runs with career lows in batting average .230 and OPS (.698) last year, McCann battled right shoulder discomfort that reached a debilitating point as July elapsed.
"It just kept getting worse," McCann said. "You can play through injury and pain. It just got to the point where it was affecting the way I was attacking the baseball. Balls you would usually hit for a line drive, you're fouling off. Balls that you'd normally square up, you're rolling over."
McCann knew he would need surgery by the time August arrived. But despite knowing that he might miss some time this upcoming season, his unselfish approach led him to decide to delay the surgery and continue playing through the discomfort.
"I kept playing," McCann said. "It was a decision I made. I wanted to be there with my teammates. We were having a great year, and I felt like I could go out there and still give us a chance to win the game."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.