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McCann latest in line of great Yankees catchers

Seven-time All-Star joins legendary Bombers backstops Dickey, Berra, Munson

Thanksgiving hasn't arrived. It's clearly far too early to draw any conclusions about the 2014 baseball season. But here's one thing we should know for sure.

When the Yankees report to Tampa, Fla., in February, they're going to look a lot more like the Yankees that we've known than the team that went to camp last spring -- the one that had Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and rookie Austin Romine as its primary catchers.

Reaching an agreement with free agent Brian McCann on a five-year, $85-million contract is a critical first step for Brian Cashman and the Yankees' baseball staff in making the 85-win season in 2013 just a blip on the radar, not the beginning of a run of non-playoff seasons.

It remains to be seen who exactly McCann will be catching when he pulls on the pinstripes. With Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes in free agency and Andy Pettitte retired once again, the Yankees could be missing veterans who accounted for 91 starts last season. That's a staggering total. Ivan Nova and David Phelps are currently the only semi-givens behind CC Sabathia, and it remains unclear if the Yankees (and everyone else) will even get a crack at Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, who Cashman's people covet.

But as we said, it is early in the offseason. And the Yankees just added a 29-year-old stud behind the plate. He's not the best defensive catcher going, but he's a lifetime .277 hitter with power from the left side of the plate, which always plays well at Yankee Stadium. But that's not the main thing they're getting.

For the Yankees, the best part about adding McCann is they now have one piece they've almost always had when they were at their best -- a backstop with presence. Big time, as Dusty Baker would say. They didn't have that this season, and it showed.

While the legendary 1927 Yankees had a footnote as their primary catcher (Pat Collins, who played more than 100 games only once in his career), most of the Yankees' great teams have been built around an elite catcher.

Jorge Posada, who played in 125 postseason games and won four World Series rings, was an extension of the line that began with Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, who helped the Yankees win eight pennants and a staggering seven World Series from 1932-43 before turning the gear over to a kid from St. Louis who had been on a 36-foot gunship during the invasion of Normandy.

Yogi Berra would somehow top Dickey, playing in 14 World Series, including 10 that ended with the Yankees as champions. He passed the gear on to a native of a different side of St. Louis, Elston Howard. He was the Yankees' first African-American player and a solid link in the chain leading to the Thurman Munson years.

Munson was famous for not giving ground to anyone. McCann should be a worthy heir to that legacy.

As his free agency approached in Atlanta, McCann signaled a Munson/Carlton Fisk-like willingness to be a protector of baseball's unwritten rules in a series of incidents in August and September that had Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez and Carlos Gomez getting on his bad side.

McCann, who denied ordering a plunking, was a central figure in an incident in Washington after the Braves' Julio Teheran drilled Harper with a 94-mph fastball, fairly obviously in retaliation for Harper admiring a long home run to center field the previous at-bat. He got in Fernandez's face after a series of subtle exchanges during a game in September, leading to Fernandez styling around the bases after the NL Rookie of the Year Award winner hit his first pro home run.

McCann took a more direct approach when the veteran Gomez shouted while making his way around the bases after a home run in late September. McCann blocked home plate -- in the style of Fisk once chasing Deion Sanders down the first-base line, yelling at "Prime Time" to run -- to get his message across, triggering another showdown for the Braves.

Russell Martin brought the Yankees some of that presence, but Cashman was outbid for him a year ago, when he jumped to the Pirates for $17 million over two years. McCann, an All-Star in seven of the past eight seasons, is a major upgrade over both Martin and the blue-collar group in 2013. With some time as the designated hitter, in addition to his games behind the plate, he is a real threat to hit 30-plus home runs.

McCann had been widely pursued, with the Rangers among those in the hunt. Cashman stepped up to get a deal done. He was rebuilding his roster and going back to the future.

Good teams almost always have good catchers, and no team has had better catchers than the Yankees.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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