James McCann’s hopes for remaining with the Tigers might well have disappeared during 2018 in a swirl of statistical realities.
The harsh facts for a 28-year-old catcher who had been a Tigers regular the past four seasons:
►McCann was 101st among all big-league catchers in an all-encompassing defensive statistic known as Fielding Runs Above Average, as compiled by Baseball Prospectus, and known to carry weight with most big-league front offices.
►And while he was first in metrics that measure a catcher’s arm and effectiveness at chopping down runs, he was 92nd among all catchers in framing runs, and 108th in blocking runs
►Factor in his .220 batting average, his .267 on-base average, and .314 slugging percentage, McCann’s OPS of .581 was 74th when compared with catchers from both leagues.
It is the story behind a negative-WAR (wins above replacement) of minus-0.5, which is not the brand of performance most teams would consider retaining for upward of $4 million in 2019. And that is the vicinity McCann would figure to be paid if the Tigers invite him back.
They have until midnight Friday to decide whether McCann, as well as eight other arbitration-eligible players, will be offered 2019 contracts. The list includes Nick Castellanos, Shane Greene, Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd, Alex Wilson, Daniel Norris, Blaine Hardy, and Drew VerHagen, all of whom appear to be safe in Detroit.
McCann’s status, however, is at risk.
Al Avila, the Tigers general manager who must sign off on any contract offer to McCann and others, has been quiet about the Tigers’ regular catcher, except for these words during a season wrap-up conversation in late September.
“I think there’s still something in there,” Avila said then about McCann. “I think there’s more potential in there. But he’s getting to that point now where he’s getting close to free agency and starting to make a little bit more money.
“So, we have to make a tough decision … McCann is one guy that we have to look at and determine: ‘Do we bring him back or not?’”
The Tigers have reason, beyond McCann’s numbers, to look elsewhere.
They have John Hicks as an option, as well as rookie Grayson Greiner, who showed enough during his Tigers audition in 2018 to suggest Greiner can survive in Detroit, at least as a part-time option.
There also is a rare glut of catching on the offseason market, which could make McCann’s return even more doubtful.
His defensive numbers, apart from throwing, generally ranked lower in 2018 than with past part-time Tigers catchers on the level of Bryan Holaday, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and even one-time Tigers prospect Curt Casali.
McCann was a second-round pick by the Tigers in 2011 as he wrapped up his junior season at the University of Arkansas. There were doubts then about his bat, but no anxieties about his size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), mechanics behind the plate, arm, poise, or intellect, which was stratospheric.
McCann received during his entire educational experience — from elementary school through college — only one grade that was lower than an A. It was a B he sustained on a chemistry exam at Arkansas while he plowed through his requirements as a pre-med major.
It looked as if the big question, his bat, was becoming less of an issue, particularly during his rookie year, 2015, when he batted .264. Two years later he slammed 13 home runs and had a .733 OPS.
But the bat has since dipped, all while defensive framing and blocking became liabilities, even as his pitch-calling skills rose and as his arm shut down opposing runners. He was a popular clubhouse teammate, as well, good with pitchers, and consistent with his cerebral gifts, one of the team's player representatives.
The Tigers, though, might well believe a salary projected somewhere north of $3.5 million for 2019 is more than is worth investing in a catcher whose overall numbers, particularly on defense, have been stuck in the game's lower tier.