Mets Go Long With James McCann

Going into the offseason, the Mets had a huge hole at catcher, and with Steve Cohen taking over as owner, they also had a lot of money to spend. Those two forces have apparently combined, resulting in free-agent catcher James McCann making his way to New York. Robert Murray indicated a four year-deal was likely two weeks ago, last week Andy Martino reported talks were serious, with Ken Rosenthal reporting the sides were close to a four-year deal. On Sunday, it was Rosenthal who first reported a deal in the range of $40 million, pending physical, with Jeff Passan saying the deal was just over the $40 million mark. But while McCann is certainly an upgrade for the Mets at the position, the deal is curious given the years involved and J.T. Realmuto’s continued availability.

In our Top 50 Free Agents, I ranked McCann 33rd and expected a contract in the range of two years and $14 million; the average crowdsource numbers were in that same ballpark. Over at ESPN, Kiley McDaniel ranked McCann higher at 14th, but expected a modest deal of two years and $21 million, while Keith Law left McCann off his top-40 at The Athletic entirely. In his write-up for us, Jay Jaffe went over McCann’s plusses and minuses:

Quality catchers aren’t easy to come by these days, and for teams that can’t afford to offer a nine-figure deal to Realmuto and are loath to invest in a 38-year-old [Yadier] Molina (or simply aren’t the Cardinals), McCann offers a reasonable alternative. Admittedly, his track record for above-average play isn’t a long one; he was 0.7 wins below replacement as recently as 2018, and netted -0.1 WAR from 2014-18, that while hitting for just a 75 wRC+. Even so, his 3.8 WAR over the past two seasons is tied for fifth among catchers, while his 116 wRC+ is eighth.

Underlying his recent performance are substantial improvements on both sides of the ball. From 2015-18, McCann posted an average exit velocity of 87.9 mph and a .304 xwOBA, but he’s up to an average of 90.2 mph over the past two seasons, with a .328 xwOBA. Meanwhile, he posted his first above-average framing numbers this year (2.3 runs, up from -9.0 by our data, and from -8.0 to 1.5 via Baseball Prospectus). He’d be an upgrade for several teams.

McCann’s last two years have raised his profile considerably since he was non-tendered after the 2018 season. Over 587 plate appearances, he’s hit .276/.334/.474, albeit as an all-or-nothing slugger against righties with a 30% strikeout rate and very few walks; conversely, he’s crushed lefties, with a 132 wRC+ against them in 2019 and a 236 mark last season. The projections, though, still see McCann’s awful pre-2019 self: Steamer has him with an 80 wRC+, and while ZiPS is more optimistic, it expects him to be about 10% below league-average with the bat. Everyone, it seems, is having difficulty determining how much stock to place in small-sample performances like his great 144 wRC+ in 2020 that came in just 30 games. Aging plays its part, too: As Jay noted, a 116 wRC+ over the last two years is an excellent mark for a catcher, but McCann turns 31 next June, so even if we take that mark as his present talent, we would expect a decline in performance as the years pass.

If McCann is an average or slightly above-average hitter and an average defensive catcher, he’ll be worth about three to three and a half wins in 2021. There is some question about his defense, though. While we have articles dating back nearly five years (and as recent as January) about McCann working on his framing, up through 2019, that work didn’t appear to bearing fruit. If he were to become a good framer, he could push himself into the four-win range with a solid offensive season.

As you can see, the range of outcomes for McCann is vast given the large swath of outcomes he has already provided in his career. A one-win season seems just as likely as a four-win campaign. Betting on something close to average or maybe a bit above-average in 2021 is the safer choice. For the Mets, McCann’s improvements, even in a small sample, outweighed the questions about his prior performance, his age, and his ability to handle a full workload at catcher.

Still, a four-year deal doesn’t make sense given where McCann is today and where he’s likely to be over the next three or four years as he enters his mid-30s. It’s possible that 2021 is the only year he performs at a full-time starter level. And while the cost for McCann might be lower than Realmuto, adding the former instead of the latter would seem to suggest that the Mets are going to set their sights higher elsewhere, perhaps pursuing George Springer. Adding McCann and Springer would greatly improve the team. The problem would be signing McCann without making another big move, which would be a fairly big disappointment given the new expectations in Queens, and removing Realmuto from the board only leaves a few big splashes left for a team that still has considerable work to do. McCann fills a need, but he’s not a slam dunk.

As for Realmuto (and to a lesser extent Yadier Molina), the list of teams needing a catcher drops by one, even if it does alter expectations for the cost of catching in free agency. With the Phillies talking about reducing spending but then hiring Dave Dombrowski (who presumably wouldn’t have taken the job without some payroll promise) and the Yankees’ motives at catcher unclear, Realmuto’s market isn’t as great as it was. The Nationals might make some sense, and if the Blue Jays miss on other targets like Springer, he could enter into their mix. Houston is also a possibility. The Angels were rumored to be in on McCann. After that, we are into mystery team territory. That makes this a good day for McCann and a decent day for the Mets, but not a great one for Realmuto.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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jcarone
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jcarone

Does that mean that Realmuto is a better value at 5 for $25 million?