James McCann

Frustration apparent, but White Sox still have big role planned for James McCann

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USA TODAY

Frustration apparent, but White Sox still have big role planned for James McCann

GLENDALE, Ariz. — From the White Sox perspective, there's nothing better than having not just one, but two All-Star catchers.

But not everyone sounds thrilled with the new catching situation. Specifically, one of the catchers.

It's not at all unexpected that James McCann would have some frustration after turning his career around in 2019, going from a five-year backup with minimal offensive production to an All Star, only for the White Sox to hand out a franchise-record contract to Yasmani Grandal, another All-Star backstop with a much longer track record of success both at the plate and behind it.

McCann performed well enough to earn the starting job in 2020. Instead, he's at No. 2 on the depth chart.

"I guess you can say in this business there’s nothing that should surprise you," he said Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers reported for duty at Camelback Ranch. "There’s things you can control and things you can’t control, and the business side of things you can’t control.

"All you do is prepare to take care of yourself as far as offseason preparations go, being ready for spring training, then spring training and getting ready for the season. And everything else is what it is."

None of this is to say that McCann wasn't offering up typical team-first platitudes, expressing his desire to do whatever the White Sox asked of him. But his tone was not a cheery one. It was one you might expect from someone who earned a starting job and won't get it.

"I’m just here doing my job," he said. "Whatever they ask me to do, I’ll be willing to do.

"All you can control is how you handle your own self and how you handle your own preparations, and that was my main focus throughout the offseason and that will continue to be my main focus: how to make myself better and how to help the team win."

One of the biggest questions of the offseason from fans was what the White Sox now do with McCann. He would figure to be a decent trade chip that would entice any team still looking for a starter behind the plate. But he's also extraordinarily valuable as a No. 2 catcher on a team with hopes of reaching the postseason for the first time in more than a decade.

McCann is no sure thing to repeat his All-Star caliber performance in 2020. His first- and second-half splits were dramatic last season, with his .316/.371/.502 slash line before the All-Star break yielding to a .226/.281/.413 line after it. But the impact he had as a hard worker and game planner doesn't figure to go anywhere.

While McCann's starts behind the plate and playing time in general are certain to decrease in a big way with Grandal's arrival, the White Sox are still planning on their new backup catcher making a significant contribution.

"A pivotal role," manager Rick Renteria said Wednesday. "He's an integral part of who we are as we move forward. Him and Yasmani, they're here to take that staff and give us the best possibility of being able to take care of matchups when we need to and to pick each other up.

"You can't run a catcher out there every single day. You can't expect one guy's going to catch 162 games. It's not going to happen. I ran Mac out there trying to catch almost 162 games (last season), and you know you start to break down a little bit.

"Having two guys who you can truthfully trust and being able to manage the pitching is a huge benefit to us, and we're happy that we have these two guys to balance us out."

You certainly can't blame McCann for any frustration, nor should any frustration hit as unexpected after the White Sox made a major upgrade with Grandal. McCann said plenty of the right things Wednesday, too, and for that he should be commended. That's what the White Sox spent Wednesday doing: commending McCann.

"He and I spoke I think three times this past offseason, the first time being right after we made the Grandal move," general manager Rick Hahn said. "Each time, he fundamentally has reiterated his desire to win and be part of a championship club.

"From an individual standpoint, I certainly understand guys want to compete. All 26 guys on that team are going to want to try to compete every day. You want that hunger. You don't necessarily wants guys who feel like they couldn't handle more.

"In terms of the interactions with James, it's been positive from the standpoint of trying to be part of something special."

Competing doesn't seem to be something McCann has any plans to stop doing. And if the White Sox are going to make their big leap into playoff contention this season, they'll need contributions from up and down the roster — and up and down the catching depth chart, too.

"I’m going to take stuff from (Grandal), as I’m sure he’ll be able to take some stuff from me," McCann said. "That’s what makes a team good, when guys can grow from each other and push each other."

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Should the White Sox trade James McCann?

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USA TODAY

Should the White Sox trade James McCann?

Here’s a question that made no sense as recently as mid November: Should the White Sox trade James McCann?

Then Yasmani Grandal came along, secured the No. 1 catcher’s job for the next four years, and suddenly McCann’s future, short-term instead of long-term, became a relevant discussion topic.

With Grandal behind the plate for the foreseeable future and Edwin Encarnacion — whose one-year free-agent deal with the South Siders has been reported but not announced — stepping in as the team’s primary designated hitter, that doesn’t leave a ton of starts for a guy who earned such a role with his performance in 2019. It might make him seem expendable, or at the very least a primo trade chip.

And indeed, a surplus of All-Star catchers sounds like an area Rick Hahn could deal from in order to get his ready-to-contend roster in even better shape as spring training approaches. The general manager said his focus would be on bolstering the bullpen now that he’s made so many additions elsewhere, and what better way to acquire a top-notch relief arm or two — or a platoon partner to go along with Nomar Mazara in right field — than by dangling an All-Star backstop?

Obviously, as Hahn has made a habit of mentioning, hypothetical trades depend on what the White Sox receive in return. If Hahn can get the bullpen improvement he seeks, maybe that deal gets done. When assessing whether that sort of return is possible, McCann's trade value will undoubtedly be affected by his second-half dip in production and the fact that he's slated to hit free agency following the 2020 season.

But here’s the thing: McCann, not traded, has plenty of value to the White Sox as they look to compete for a playoff spot in 2020.

Acquiring Grandal was, in part, such a good move, despite McCann’s presence, because it provided a reliability that McCann couldn’t. Despite an All-Star first half in 2019 (a .316/.371/.502 slash line), he didn’t produce at that level after the break (a .226/.281/.413 slash line). His second-half numbers were far more in line with what he did for five seasons as a Detroit Tiger than what he did in a few months with the White Sox.

Grandal brings a resume of consistent offensive production, and he puts up strong defensive numbers. Framing might not be a valuable trait for much longer, should the robot revolution reach the umpiring ranks, but while it is, Grandal ranks highly in the category and McCann ranks near the bottom.

Certainly there’s some level of disappointment for McCann, who in 2019 was the first All-Star catcher on the South Side since A.J. Pierzynski. But McCann is one of those team-first guys the White Sox seem to have in droves these days, the kind of guy who will tell an assemblage of reporters that he’ll play shortstop if the team wants him to — don't worry, there’s no chance the White Sox will want McCann to play shortstop. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Jose Abreu from taking grounders there before every game.

McCann established himself as a leader for the 89-loss White Sox last season with an unparalleled work ethic that earned rave reviews from current and former teammates alike. His work as a game-planner was cited as a tremendous benefit to a young pitching staff, and he earned plaudits for his role in Lucas Giolito’s remarkable turnaround that sent the pitcher to the All-Star Game alongside his battery mate.

Those leadership skills don’t have to go away just because McCann’s no longer at the top of the depth chart, either. You might remember a certain backup catcher who played a significant role on a championship team in this city. If you don’t know who I’m referring to, just drive up to the North Side and see whose name is on the manager’s office.

The point being that having two really good catchers is better than having one, and if you're a team fighting for a spot in the playoffs, having an All-Star catcher behind the plate every day is better than having an All-Star catcher behind the plate five out of six days.

“I’m sure he’s (saying) ‘Gosh, we just signed a guy and gave him a multiple-year contract. Where do I fit?’ Well, I made him understand,” manager Rick Renteria said of McCann after the White Sox signed Grandal. “The conversation we had was, he knows how I feel about him. The whole organization knows how I feel about him. I love Mac, and I think that this addition does not detract from who he is and what he brings to the table as White Sox.

"I wanted him to know that we’re going to make this work. I think that all players when you make a change or add, they deserve to have a conversation with the man that is putting the lineup together. I just said, ‘Listen, don’t worry about it. This will work itself out.’ It will. It always does. Things happen and right now this is a move that the organization felt that could us in a better position moving forward.”

McCann remains a veteran catcher who works well with the pitching staff and showed — if not for as long as he would’ve liked — that he can swing the bat. Sounds like a description of an ideal No. 2 catcher, no?

Maybe someone rings up Hahn and presents him with a deal that brings back tremendous value to the bullpen or an attractive bat to go along with Mazara. Maybe he feels good enough about Zack Collins' potential as a No. 2 catcher in the big leagues that pulling the trigger on such a trade wouldn't be all that difficult. But McCann seems to be the perfect No. 2 catcher on a very good team, and that's what the White Sox are trying to be as they shift out of rebuilding mode and into contending mode. And so keeping him as a part of that transition makes an awful lot of sense.

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White Sox keep catching options open with one-year deal for James McCann

White Sox keep catching options open with one-year deal for James McCann

What will the White Sox catching corps look like come Opening Day?

It's hard to say exactly, but they have a bunch of options — and seem intent on keeping it that way.

The team announced a one-year, $5.4 million deal with James McCann on Monday, avoiding arbitration a few hours ahead of the non-tender deadline.

Of course, plenty still wonder what will become of McCann after the White Sox gave free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal the richest contract in team history a couple weeks back. While it seems that having two All-Star catchers is an inarguably good thing, there have been queries as to why catcher was the position the White Sox addressed in free agency with so many other positions on the to-do list.

Grandal's acquisition stabilized a position that despite McCann's All-Star status was steamrolling toward 2020 with some huge question marks. McCann was deservedly invited to the Midsummer Classic thanks to a .316/.371/.502 slash line in the first half. But after the All-Star break, McCann slashed just .226/.281/.413, numbers far more reminiscent of his five years with the Detroit Tigers, which ended in him being non-tendered at this time a year ago. So which level of production will the White Sox get in 2020? It's an unknown. Grandal has a far longer track record of offensive success.

Of course, there are far more benefits to keeping McCann around for another year than simply the hope that he'll be more first half than second half. He earned rave reviews for his work with the pitchers and for his tireless efforts in game planning. He's a positive presence in the White Sox clubhouse and received a ton of praise from Lucas Giolito, who McCann worked with often during the pitcher's transformational season that saw him turn into the ace of the starting staff.

The White Sox can take advantage of those positives and consider any return to the All-Star level of offensive production a bonus, with Grandal figuring to get the lion's share of the at-bats in the No. 1 catcher position. If McCann is the team's No. 2 catcher, that means the White Sox have a catching duo to be really excited about.

"I’m sure he’s (saying), ‘Gosh, we just signed a guy and gave him a multiple-year contract. Where do I fit?’ Well, I made him understand," manager Rick Renteria said of McCann after the Grandal signing. "The conversation we had was, he knows how I feel about him. The whole organization knows how I feel about him. I love Mac, and I think that this addition does not detract from who he is and what he brings to the table as White Sox.

"I wanted him to know that we’re going to make this work. I think that all players when you make a change or add, they deserve to have a conversation with the man that is putting the lineup together. I just said, ‘Listen, don’t worry about it. This will work itself out.’ It will. It always does. Things happen and right now this is a move that the organization felt that could us in a better position moving forward. Rick (Hahn) and everyone pulled the trigger, and we’re glad we did because we’re getting better."

Of course, the White Sox could also cash in on McCann coming off his All-Star season in a trade, should they find an opportunity to upgrade the roster elsewhere. While Zack Collins is even more of an unknown, considering his limited big league experience, the White Sox are searching for ways to get his bat in the lineup. He has faced questions about his defense since he was drafted, but he could take over the No. 2 spot behind Grandal, if need be. Collins could also be a third catcher, behind Grandal and McCann, if the White Sox decide that's how they want to use the 26th spot on the expanded rosters.

The White Sox also could keep all three and use them as part of a four-man rotation at catcher, designated hitter and first base with Jose Abreu.

On top of all that, the White Sox have two heretofore unmentioned catchers still on the 40-man roster, Seby Zavala and Yermin Mercedes, who could fit into this puzzle somehow, as well, depending on how the rest of the offseason plays out.

The point is that there are a lot of options, and that's now assured by the new one-year deal for McCann.

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