James McCann has proven he deserves to be an everyday player in the major leagues. And this offseason, he figures to get paid to be one.
But will the White Sox be the ones handing him the contract he’s earned?
Rick Hahn’s rebuilding project has worked to the point where, for the first time in a long time, we don’t have to spend September talking about the upcoming offseason and what might happen next year. The next two and a half weeks are where the focus is right now as the White Sox chase down the franchise’s first playoff spot in more than a decade.
Forget the offseason, forget next season, there’s a postseason to be played.
But after McCann had yet another terrific night at the plate Wednesday, blasting two home runs out of PNC Park to lead an 8-1 rout of the Pittsburgh Pirates, White Sox fans were probably thinking that it’d sure be nice to figure out a way to keep this dude around.
“The talent here is extremely good,” McCann said Wednesday night. “You've seen the maturity from guys like (Tim Anderson) and (Yoán) Moncada and Eloy (Jiménez) growing up. Then you mix in some veteran guys.
“Building that culture here, it's been a special thing to be a part of, and it's something I hope continues at this organization for a long time.”
But adding McCann to an already loaded long-term mix is going to be tricky.
It’s not that the White Sox don’t want to. They love the guy. But they made the decision to set themselves up with a long-term No. 1 catcher when they gave Yasmani Grandal the biggest free-agent deal in club history last year. Even though McCann was coming off an All-Star season, it was and remains a smart addition from the standpoint of dependability. Grandal long ago established himself as one of the game’s better catchers. McCann had an All-Star first half in 2019 before his numbers plummeted after the break, and it was a bit of a mystery what he’d be able to give the White Sox in 2020.
McCann has answered those questions emphatically. But moving forward, Grandal’s presence alone might be enough to send McCann searching elsewhere, because he’s earned a starting job.
Could the White Sox make it work? They could try, and they’ve shown exactly how it could work this season. One of those long hoped for “good problems to have” has played itself out as a four-man rotation of sorts involving Grandal, McCann, José Abreu and Edwin Encarnación at catcher, first base and DH. Grandal can play at all three spots, Abreu at first base and DH, McCann at catcher and DH and Encarnación at DH. Encarnación has the ability to play first base, too, but he hasn’t so far.
Wednesday night was the blueprint in action. McCann caught Dane Dunning, who was excellent in just his fourth major league start. Grandal and Abreu each had a hit while playing first base and DH, respectively, Abreu extending his career-high hitting streak to 22 games. And McCann was able to swing it, and swing it he did, with the two homers and half the team’s RBIs.
“We need Mac in the lineup, too. So it doesn't matter whether I'm playing or not,” Grandal said last weekend. “Mac is hot, so we need to get Mac in the lineup. We're in the final stretch. All that matters is a win.
“Obviously he's been hot, hopefully he keeps hitting. We trust him behind the plate, as well. Whether I'm DH'ing, playing first, catching, whatever it is, we trust that Mac is going to do his job and hopefully continue to hit the way that he's been hitting.
“It's a plus for us to have a guy who you can trust day in and day out to be behind the plate and do a really good job. The fact that we have that, it's great.”
Rick Renteria has been peppered with questions about the playing-time division behind the plate all season long. But he’d certainly rather be fielding them than scrambling to figure out what to do when Grandal needs a rest.
As the White Sox move toward the offseason and any decision-making process on McCann, it’s important to remember that two All-Star catchers are always better than one, and they could choose to have one of baseball’s great luxuries as they move further into their contention window.
“We're very fortunate to have two guys that obviously are accomplished, continue to contribute in big ways,” Renteria said Wednesday. “We just try to find a balance where we keep them either both in the lineup, rest one, just do everything we can to kind of maximize what we're capable of doing with them.
“James has been the same since Day 1. Everybody knows how I feel about James, and he continues to do what he's been capable of doing since we got him.”
And so maybe the White Sox could choose to envision something similar for 2021 and beyond.
All it would take is a multi-year contract for McCann to be not the team’s No. 1 catcher but to play as much as a No. 1 catcher would if used regularly as a designated hitter. The White Sox have a team option on Encarnación — who despite just a .176 batting average ranks fourth on the team with eight home runs, two more than Grandal and three more than McCann — with, interestingly, no buyout attached.
But a fanless 2020 campaign figures to throw baseball’s financials into complete disarray, and it’s expected to be a weird offseason where teams might be extremely hesitant to spend. And that doesn’t mean what we’ve seen the last few offseasons, where they’ve chosen to wait deep into the winter to add pieces. It might mean a near-complete reliance on what’s already in house.
Who knows if the White Sox would fall into that category, as they jumped the market last year and made many of their signings — including the addition of Grandal — early in the offseason calendar. But all that spending last winter might end up a luxury: They might not have to navigate the uncertain economic waters after adding so much last year.
And then there’s Andrew Vaughn.
McCann is hitting well right now, and he’s been an All Star for this White Sox team. They know what he can do. But they spent the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft on a power hitter who they envision as a lineup anchor alongside Anderson, Moncada, Abreu, Jiménez and Luis Robert for years to come. Vaughn’s earned rave reviews this year, even with no minor league games to play in, and it’s long looked like their opinion of his readiness could be revealed by their decision on Encarnación’s option. Pick it up, and they’d show a similar kind of patience as they have with all their top prospects during the rebuild. Decline it, and Vaughn might be ticketed for the starting DH job in 2021.
Vaughn has just 55 games under his belt as a pro, the same total he’ll have when spring training rolls around in February. But he’s also ranked as one of the top 15 prospects in baseball and did some pretty high-quality swinging against the White Sox big league pitchers during “Summer Camp” in July.
Whether at DH or first base — Abreu is signed through the 2022 season and would be a solid bet to finish his career with the White Sox, even if it extends past that date — Vaughn is the “something” of the future. And it’s possible that future arrives sooner rather than later.
“Any one of us who are able to steal a day and head out to (the alternate training site in) Schaumburg comes away continuing to be impressed with what Andrew Vaughn is doing out there,” Hahn said at the end of August. “Obviously, it's less ideal from a developmental standpoint than if you were out playing on a nightly basis, competing against other teams. But given his makeup and given his tools, it's hard to look at him and rule him out of being able to help a team in the not too distant future.
“He's been very impressive out there and a guy that there's a great deal of confidence in his current ability, much less than what we foresee this player being over the next several years.”
That makes it even trickier to plot out a lineup that gives everyday at-bats to four guys at three positions. Again, that’s a good problem to have, and other contending teams have employed similar setups with great success. The White Sox are doing it as we speak. But is it a problem worth spending big on? Because that’s what it could cost to keep McCann as a part of such a mix. Vaughn, meanwhile, would make a relative nothing as a rookie with years and years of affordable club control.
McCann means a lot to this White Sox team, including what he’s done behind the plate working with the pitching staff — especially ace Lucas Giolito; McCann caught the no-hitter — and what he’s done at the plate, where he’s got a .333/.392/.580 slash line after Wednesday’s two-homer game.
But he’s transformed himself into one of baseball’s better catchers, and he deserves a contract and a job that reflects that.
As much as they might want to, the White Sox just might not be able to give it to him, and he might not even be interested in such a setup, hoping instead for the traditional starting catcher role he's earned.
But to circle back to the start, this is a different kind of fall for the White Sox. The offseason’s issues are for November. September and October bring more pressing concerns, and McCann is a part of meeting the team’s biggest challenges in the coming weeks, with eight games against the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians in the middle of its first pennant race in eight years.
McCann will be in the market for a job this winter. Right now, he’s got one, he’s doing it well, and he’s helping his team achieve what it’s hoped to achieve for so long.
“I was blessed to come up in Detroit during a time of winning, and seeing the guys that have been around and understanding what it means being on a ball club is a special thing,” McCann said. “So I’ve kind of gone through both sides of it, the winning and the rebuild.
“So now being at this point of my career and being on a winning team means a lot.
“We have some big series coming up, but the most important thing is taking it day by day and not looking too far ahead and getting up in what’s coming. Taking care of business each day and moving on from there.”