Yadier Molina has drawn the most headlines among catchers early in free agency, in part due to the willingness of both him and his agent to go on-record to discuss the veteran’s market. However, James McCann is drawing interest from a similar collection of teams, per MLB Network’s Jon Heyman (Twitter link), with the Yankees, Mets, Cardinals, Angels and incumbent White Sox among the clubs to express some interest in the free-agent backstop. The Phillies would have interest in the event that J.T. Realmuto signs elsewhere, Heyman adds.
Given that each of these clubs, with the exception of the White Sox and Phillies, has already expressed interest in Molina, it’s not much of a surprise that they’d also at least gauge McCann’s asking price. There’s been speculation about the Yankees moving on from Gary Sanchez for months, while the Mets currently lack a starting-caliber backstop on their roster. The Angels got a big year out of Max Stassi in 2020, but that was obviously a rather limited sample and Stassi’s prior track record is less impressive.
The Cardinals may raise some eyebrows, given their interest in retaining Molina, but it’s only logical that with Molina exploring other options they’d do the same. Should Molina get the two-year deal he’s seeking from another club, the Cards could pivot to McCann or simply remain in-house and turn the keys over to 26-year-old Andrew Knizner.
As for the White Sox, their interest in keeping McCann is well known, but it’s unlikely to result in a deal. The ChiSox signed Yasmani Grandal to a franchise-record four-year, $73MM contract last winter, and with three years remaining on that arrangement there’s simply no room for McCann to get everyday at-bats. McCann spoke earlier this offseason about his free agency, telling NBC Sports Chicago’s Chuck Garfien that he feels he’s earned the opportunity to be a team’s starting catcher. The White Sox can’t offer that with Grandal under contract.
It’s hard to dispute McCann’s feelings after a pair of terrific seasons with the South Siders. While he was non-tendered by the Tigers after a dismal 2018 campaign, McCann has more than bounced back in Chicago; he’s taken his game to new heights. McCann was a bit shy of a league-average bat as Detroit’s primary catcher in 2017, but he’s broken out with a .276/.334/.474 batting line in 587 plate appearances with the White Sox (116 wRC+).
He’s made strides in terms of hard-hit rate and exit velocity, supporting that offensive breakout, and McCann also improved defensively quite a bit this past season. He’s always been adept at controlling runners (career 35.8 percent caught-stealing rate), but McCann prioritized improving his pitch-framing this past offseason, and the results were strong. Statcast reflects that McCann went from one of the worst catchers in the game at framing pitches on the bottom of the zone to one of the game’s best. It’s a small sample, to be sure, but it’d be a reach to suggest that McCann simply lucked his way from getting 44.8 percent of such pitches called all the way up to 61.8 percent.
The Phillies probably aren’t the only club who view McCann as a “Plan B” to Realmuto, but there also figure to be teams that know they cannot afford Realmuto and are thus willing to act more quickly. McCann and his agents will have to determine whether they’re better served taking one of those early offers or holding out until Realmuto is off the market. The latter route could lead to increased interest, but it’s also possible some teams that are willing to act now will have already filled their need at catcher or spent the majority of their offseason budget by that point.