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.