When the Astros gave Charlie Morton a two-year, $14 million free agent pact following the 2016 season there was industry surprise. He had just turned 33 and was 46-71 with a 4.54 ERA.
Houston officials, though, saw underlying skills — namely spin rate — that if properly channeled would produce a quality starter.
Eleven months later, Morton followed his best season by closing World Series Game 7 with four innings of brilliant relief as the Astros won their first-ever title.
That sent a copycat industry hunting for the next Morton and the Cubs bestowed a three-year, $38 million deal on Tyler Chatwood, his career 40-46, 4.31 ERA ledger and his high spin rate. By August 2018, Chatwood was out of the rotation en route to a 5.30 ERA in a now-completed deal that was mostly a Chicago disaster.
So what the Mets must determine is whether James McCann is the catching equivalent of Morton or Chatwood. Because if you like McCann, you are not basing it on his career, but on the past two seasons — in one of which he was the backup during a pandemic-shortened schedule — and the underlying numbers off his bat on offense and framing the ball on defense.
Neither the Mets nor McCann’s representatives acknowledged a deal was close. But pretty much every agent (not McCann’s) and team executive (not from the Mets) said they expect the Mets to ultimately sign McCann for four years in the $36 million-$48 million range.
If so, McCann would fall into a realm similar to Trevor May, who the Mets just handed a two-year, $15 million contract based mainly on the past two years and the underlying data that suggests still more room to his ceiling. For the Mets, this would be trying to deepen the roster with upside plays while pursuing one (or more) from the Trevor Bauer/DJ LeMahieu/George Springer upper-tier collection.
It also would mean not signing J.T. Realmuto from that elite group. Realmuto probably desires a length of contract and dollar figure that could be uncomfortable when you consider the dangers of catching, that he turns 30 in March, that he has finished the past two seasons injured and that only Yadier Molina has squatted more in major league games the past six years.
But Realmuto has a track record that McCann doesn’t. No projections of excellence are necessary; no wonder if his skills will hold up through a heavy workload. Over the past four seasons, Realmuto has a major league-best for a catcher 16.7 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs). Yasmani Grandal is next at 15.6. A distant third is Tyler Flowers at 9.5. McCann is 17th at 3.9 — or less than Realmuto had in each of the last three full major league seasons (2017-19).
After five blah Tiger seasons, McCann was a 2019 All-Star with the White Sox. Yet, Chicago still invested four years at $73 million to make Grandal its No. 1 catcher in 2020.
After the 2018 season, the Mets offered Grandal four years at $60 million. Grandal thought he was worth more. The Mets, after failing to land Realmuto in a trade, signed Wilson Ramos for two years at $19 million. That offseason Grandal never could find a market on a long deal that he found suitable and wound up on a one-year, $18.25 million accord with Milwaukee.
Realmuto now — like Grandal then — might not find his upper market if the Mets go with McCann and the Phillies actually are not spending much this offseason. Thus, if a team waits, like with Grandal/Brewers, you might get a deal. The Mets — then under Brodie Van Wagenen and the Wilpons — did not want to wait and ended up with the far inferior Ramos. What will the regime of Sandy Alderson and Steve Cohen do — go with McCann or spurn him and see what happens if you wait out Realmuto, with the danger of ending up with neither?
The Ramos signing turned Travis d’Arnaud into first a Mets backup and then a released player. The Dodgers, Rays and Braves — organizations expert in finding hidden value — were the next to enlist d’Arnaud. The Rays and Braves received fantastic results. More than ever with how much information overload there is, catchers are late developing. And if you can see those underlying skills, then you can enact the kind of two-year, $16 million pact with d’Arnaud that so far has been incredibly team friendly.
Those underlying possibilities exist with McCann, who at 30 is the same age as d’Arnaud last offseason when he signed his Braves deal. McCann appears to be a player who can take newer training methods and concepts and apply them. He has hit the ball with greater exit velocity the past two years and greater line-drive frequency. Analytically, he went from a career poor pitch framer to excellent in 2020. But does that skill have as much to do with catching someone with precision like Jacob deGrom or someone spraying the ball around like Jeurys Familia? Plus, sometime during a four-year contract, MLB very well may go to robot ball-strike calls at which time framing a pitch becomes an irrelevant skill.
Also, McCann is likely looking at a term twice as long as d’Arnaud and a dollar figure more than twice as much. Can he handle a 120-game, No. 1 starter catching burden without devaluing his output like Realmuto does? Or do the Mets have to trade for someone like Cincinnati’s Tucker Barnhart or sign Flowers to form, say, a 90-game/70-game platoon to derive the best out of McCann and the overall catching results. That would still cost way less than Realmuto but — again — come without Realmuto’s pedigree.
All of this might reveal itself best in a mosaic with the offseason complete if the Mets have May and McCann, but also have added Springer, a quality starter and another good reliever. For McCann looks much better as part of an overall plan to upgrade talent then if you are just debating him versus Realmuto.
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