The grass may not be greener on the other side, but the money should be for free-agent baseball catcher James McCann.
The Dos Pueblos High graduate has become a hot commodity for the proverbial Hot Stove — the off-season marketplace where Major League deals are cooked — after two sizzling seasons with the Chicago White Sox.
“I’ve seen memos on McCann,” said Bill Pintard, the local baseball guru and longtime scout for the New York Yankees. “His makeup is perfect. He’s a quality guy — a good person — and he’s good, too. Who wouldn’t want a James McCann?
“It just all depends on who’s available. He’s second on the list of free-agent catchers (behind Philadelphia star J.T. Realmuto).”
But McCann also dropped to second on Chicago’s list of catchers despite a breakout season in 2019 when he batted .273 with 18 home runs. He was even picked for last year’s MLB All-Star Game, contributing to the American League’s 4-3 victory with a seventh-inning single that sparked a two-run rally.
The White Sox, however, curiously signed catcher Yasmani Grandal last November to a four-year, $73 million contract — the largest free-agent deal in club history.
“That was definitely a twist I wasn’t expecting after an All-Star year in 2019,” said McCann, who turned 30 last June. “But I’ve said it my whole career, all you can control is what you can control, and that’s what I did.
“I did everything I could to take advantage of the days when my name was called and continue to perform at a high level.”
The White Sox, who signed McCann last year to a one-year deal worth $5.4 million, found ways to use both catchers. They concocted a four-man rotation of sorts which included José Abreu and Edwin Encarnación, moving Grandal around from catcher to first base and designated hitter.
McCann made the most of his at-bats, hitting .289 with an on-base percentage of .360 and slugging percentage of .536 for a White Sox team that made the playoffs with a win-loss record of 35-25.
The club hopes to re-sign him and continue the arrangement next year, especially after both catchers were among the three finalists for their position’s A.L. Gold Glove Award.
Both ranked among the AL’s top three catchers in Defensive Runs Saved. McCann also has become one of the game’s elite pitch framers, ranking in the 88th percentile, and he’s thrown out 36% of the runners who’ve tried to steal a base on him during his seven seasons in the big leagues.
“We think the world of James McCann,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said last month. “He knows what we think of him. At the same time, he’s earned the right to be a free agent… We’re going to stay in touch and we’re going to see how this market unfolds.
“That said, he’s an awfully good player at a premium position, and those guys tend to have pretty good markets.”
One of the most compelling reasons to retain him is McCann’s relationship with pitcher Lucas Giolito. The White Sox ace had a 2.61 ERA in eight starts (51⅔ innings) this year with McCann catching and a 5.66 ERA in four starts (20⅔ innings) with Grandal behind the plate.
Giolito gave much of the credit for his Aug. 25 no-hitter against Pittsburgh to McCann’s intricate game-planning and pitch-calling.
“I think there’s a lot that goes into that relationship — it definitely didn’t happen overnight,” McCann said. “The way that it started was that we both had down 2018s. We both went through a season of struggles and we both went into the offseason understanding that we both needed to make adjustments in our own personal games to continue to have success at the Major League level.
“The thing that we’ve built so well is trust… I can tell him what needs to be said and he’s not going to get upset about it. And he can come to me and tell me whatever he feels, and whatever he thinks, and I’m going to respect that. And once we’re between the lines, there’s just that trust.”
That aspect of McCann, however, is what makes his return to the White Sox so unlikely. Job sharing dilutes the secret sauce of what makes him special as a catcher: astute, prepared leadership.
“I definitely think there’s a lot that goes into that, being the guy, and being able to run the staff,” McCann said. “I do feel like that’s something I’ve earned.”
And there are plenty of clubs that want to reward McCann for that. The Yankees aren’t the only team that would like to bring him to New York — the free-spending Mets are also in the conversation. The Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays and even the Los Angeles Angels have also been mentioned as suitors.
But he must simmer on the Hot Stove until the first free-agent serving — Philadelphia’s Realmuto — is done.
The revenue lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic has lowered the temperature for bidding wars, further cooling McCann’s heels.
“You look back over the last couple of years and it’s been a slow free-agent market to begin with,” he said. “Then you throw in a pandemic, there are going to be challenges for everyone.
“But with that being said, players have earned their value based on performance. You look around the league, and teams still have needs to fill spots… There is going to be a market for players, it’s just when is that going to happen?”
Pintard figures that things will break loose soon with arbitration starting next week. He expects McCann’s phone to blow up once Realmuto signs his deal.
“I can tell you where McCann could end up — with the Phillies,” he said. “Joe Girardi likes defense. Joe was a catcher.
“And Realmuto is going. He’s one of those guys who’ll sign with whomever gives the most money, so I think Realmuto will go to the Mets. Steven Cohen has more money than anybody and he wants to make a big splash.
“Because of that, I think McCann could go to Philadelphia, and the Phillies are in a place to get really good.”
McCann hunkers down in his home near Nashville, waiting out the situation as well as the pandemic with his wife Jessica and young twin sons, Kane and Christian.
“We’re pretty much staying in Tennessee,” he said. “We’re going to hang close and enjoy some time at home.
“I firmly believe that God is in total control… and I’m at peace with that.”