Meet the new Mets… same as the old Mets?
Steve Cohen’s checkbook got its first exercise on Saturday as New York agreed to a four-year, “tick over” $40 million deal with catcher James McCann, who went from being non-tendered by the Tigers after the 2018 season to an All-Star with the White Sox in 2019 and hit 7 homers with an .896 OPS in 31 games in 2020.
While it’s exciting for the Mets, free of the Wilpon regime, to be back as a team that spends money and tries to win, passing on J.T. Realmuto to sign McCann is the kind of move that is all too familiar. It’s not that the Mets are cheaping out — they’re still, according to Jon Heyman, chasing after George Springer to play center field — but it’s a dubious deal for a free agent with a big chance of disappointing.
It could work out, sure. Maybe McCann really has put it together after he was below replacement level in his final year in Detroit. There’s also a lot of Todd Frazier/Anthony Swarzak/Jason Vargas potential here, getting McCann for eight figures a year in his age 31-34 seasons, with underlying causes for concern.
Despite his strong offensive output in 2020, McCann ranked 22nd among 66 catchers with at least 25 batted-ball events in what Statcast calls Barrel Percentage — hard-hit balls with a good launch angle. Realmuto was sixth, behind Kyle Higashioka, Salvador Perez, Jose Trevino, Gary Sanchez (who’s still incredible when he manages to put the bat on the ball), and Will Smith. Among others ahead of McCann were ex-Met Travis d’Arnaud, Chad Wallach, Grayson Greiner, Chance Sisco, and Chadwick Tromp.
Small sample size? In his big year of 2019, McCann ranked 20th among 86 catchers with at least 25 batted-ball events, behind Jorge Alfaro, Roberto Perez, Tyler Flowers, Victor Caratini, and Pedro Severino.
McCann does distinguish himself behind the plate, as he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020, but Realmuto actually won the award in the full 2019 campaign, and of course has two Silver Sluggers as the National League’s top hitter at the position. Meanwhile, the White Sox were so impressed by McCann’s breakout season that they went out last winter and signed Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract.
It’s OK for the Mets to decide that Realmuto would be an overpay, but that doesn’t mean McCann isn’t. His ceiling might be in Realmuto’s neighborhood, which is the justification for signing him to a far cheaper deal than Realmuto can expect to get, but McCann’s floor is much lower, with underlying numbers that suggest his rise from minor league-caliber to All-Star isn’t sustainable. Again, that’s why the White Sox signed Grandal last year, and the fact that McCann had a solid 31-game pandemic season — in which he had a .267 OPS in September when he was playing regularly — isn’t exactly convincing evidence that he’s a top-flight catcher for the next four years.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that Cohen’s deep desire to win and deeper pockets will lead the Mets to big things. Signing McCann isn’t it.