Tuesday, April 20, 2021

I'm a James McCann Fan Already

I remember over the winter when the New York Mets elected to sign James McCann to a surprisingly large 4-year deal rather than wait out J.T. Realmuto. As the offseason got underway, McCann was basically seen as the consolation prize for a team that didn't sign Realmuto. While Realmuto was arguably the top free-agent position player and a lock for a 9-figure contract, the speculation was that a team could get McCann on a 2-, maybe 3-year deal. In actuality, it took a 4-year deal to lock down the catcher who will celebrate his 31st birthday in June. The Mets will be paying McCann $12 million for the final year of the deal — his age 34 season when presumably he won't be the Mets starting catcher.

In many ways, signing McCann was an analytics-driven decision, not the type of move we were used to seeing from the Wilpon era Mets. The numbers on the back of his baseball card didn't seem to indicate that he was the second-best catcher on the market this past offseason. Tim Britton had a nice piece in The Athletic on all of this back when the Mets signed him.

McCann's first 5 years in MLB were with the Detroit Tigers. His batting line over those seasons was .240/.288/.366, good for an OPS+ of 76, far below league average. He always had a great arm but wasn't known as that good of a defensive catcher, particularly in the area of pitch framing. Detroit elected to non-tender McCann after those 5 seasons.

The Chicago White Sox signed McCann for the 2019 season, and he rewarded them with his best offensive season, featuring a slash line of .273/.328/.460 and an OPS+ of 107 — terrific numbers for a catcher. But he ranked dead last in an important framing statistic for the season among MLB catchers. Yasmani Grandal was signed to be the White Sox' starting catcher for 2020, while McCann backed him up and DH'ed.

McCann was proactive about his framing numbers, working with catching guru Jerry Narron after the 2019 season. Even though he was no longer the starting catcher, McCann still caught a significant number of games behind the plate and moved up to ninth in Baseball Savant's Catcher Framing Leaderboard for the 2020 season. His slash line also improved to .289/.360/.536, good for an outstanding OPS+ of 143, albeit with the usual small sample size warning for the oddball 60-game season.

I don't think anyone expects James McCann to produce offensively at last year's level. I'm sure the Mets would be absolutely thrilled if he was around his 2019 season's numbers. For what it's worth, Baseball Savant has him ranked 20th on their Catcher Framing Leaderboard so far this young season, but it's mighty early, and he's still getting to know his pitchers. Hopefully, that will improve.

He showed off that cannon of an arm on the last play of Sunday's win over the Colorado Rockies. McCann has earned raves from the pitching staff on how well he's worked with them so far. Like many of the Mets hitters over these past three weeks of starts and stops, he's underperformed offensively, with numbers that look more like what he produced for the Tigers than the past couple of years with the White Sox. It's quite possible that playing in a new league and not having the opportunity to play games as a DH will hold his numbers down below the last two seasons.

If that's the case, he can still be a very valuable Met, just managing the pitching staff and giving opposing base stealers something to think about. It's been a while since the Mets had a real good catcher behind the plate, and I'm loving watching him go about his business.

Of course, having a catcher good enough to remind you how important the position can be to a winning club also waves a red flag about the Mets shallowness at this position. After only a couple of starts, it's too early to judge if Tomás Nido can hit enough to justify a backup catching job for a contending team. The real scare comes when you look at the almost nonexistent depth behind Nido.

If Nido falters or either of the two catchers get hurt, next up is Patrick Mazeika, the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. There are big questions about Mazeika's ability to catch in the big leagues. The Mets have had him playing first base about half the time in the minors.

Top prospect Francisco Alvarez may be the catcher of the future, but he's 19 and has yet to play above the rookie level in the minors. Hopefully, that time he spent last season at the alternate site can counterbalance the loss of a 2020 minor league season for the kid. Assuming he starts the season in Brooklyn and does well, sometime late in 2023 seems to be the earliest we might see him in the Major Leagues.

The bottom line is that the Mets don't have much real depth at catcher for this season or for next. Even as James McCann has demonstrated the importance of having a good catcher behind the plate, it strikes me that the lack of depth the Mets have put together in this area is playing with fire. While signing James McCann in the first place was an excellent move, I find myself troubled by the inability of the club to stockpile a viable catcher or two in Triple-A.

Caleb Joseph is probably next up for the team if anyone goes down. Joseph turns 35 in June, has a lifetime OPS+ of 69, and hasn't been a Major League backup since 2018 in Baltimore. He's not the sort of player who would help the Mets survive an injury of any length.

And that's the maddening part of it all. The Mets pitching has already displayed the importance of having some depth, and Jonathan Villar and Luis Guillorme have showcased the higher quality of backup the Mets have available when a regular like J.D. Davis goes down. But Caleb Joseph and Bruce Maxwell represent exactly the sort of pseudo-depth that sank Mets clubs out of contention in recent years.

I know it's difficult these days to find a quality Major League backup catcher, much less have viable alternatives at the position on your Triple-A roster. Still, if the Mets are serious about contending, they should look a lot harder for someone they could truly live with at the big league level if they lose McCann or Nido for a period of time. Even more than the bullpen, catching depth is still my biggest worry with this club.

That will do it for today. It's supposed to be very cold in Chicago tonight, but it looks like the Mets and Cubs will probably play. Let's go, Mets! (And let's go warm weather, too! I'm looking forward to a Mets game played in actual baseball weather someday soon.)

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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