Thoughts following the Brian McCann trade

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon the Yankees made their first major move of the offseason, trading Brian McCann to the Astros for two pitching prospects. Two pitching prospects I didn’t cover in my Scouting The Market post, naturally. Funny how that works. Anyway, trading McCann is a pretty big deal, and I have some thoughts on it.

1. I’ve been saying for weeks I would prefer to see the Yankees keep McCann unless someone makes a big offer, and while Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman have exciting arms, I’m pretty underwhelmed. They’re two low level lottery tickets who are years away from helping at the big league level. I was hoping the Yankees would focus on a pitcher(s) either on the cusp of the show or close to it. There’s a very Gary Sheffield trade vibe to this trade (productive veteran loses job, swapped for big arms), though keeping McCann would have been much easier and more justifiable than keeping Sheffield. Having two power hitting catchers — one from each side of the plate! — sure seems like a really nice luxury, especially since there are DH at-bats available. Then again, the Yankees need to focus on improving their long-term future, and they’re not really in the position to enjoy two power hitting catchers. They’d go to waste in 2017. I dunno. It’s not a bad trade, just not what I would have preferred. I wanted guys closer to the show, not a pair of low level kids. What do I know though. Brian Cashman deserves the benefit of the doubt given his trade track record.

2. Does this trade get made if Gary Sanchez doesn’t go on that ridiculous tear the last two months? What happens if Sanchez’s first extended taste of the show looks like, say, Yadier Molina’s? Molina hit .267/.329/.356 (77 wRC+) in 51 games as a rookie. I actually think the Yankees would have made this trade even if Sanchez had struggled in his two-month audition. They seem committed to going with Greg Bird and Tyler Austin at first base, and Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks in the outfield. Catcher is a bit different because of the whole “works with the pitchers” aspect, but I think the Yankees would have given Sanchez a chance to sink or swim next season even he didn’t do what he did this year.

3. With that in mind, this is a trade that doesn’t get made by a team confident in their ability to contend next season. McCann’s not the player he once was, but productive catchers are really hard to find, and clubs planning to make a run at the postseason don’t trade that guy for two lower level pitching prospects. I don’t mean for this to come off as a negative. It’s a good thing. It’s a reality check. The Yankees were an 84-win team this past season while having Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran for half the season, and Sanchez hitting like Babe Ruth the other half. They’re pretty far from contention — this trade makes them unquestionably worse in 2017 — and I was worried they’d go through the offseason making dinky little moves that might get them up to, say, 85 wins. The Yankees realize contention is not imminent and acting appropriately.

4. Can’t say I’m surprised the Yankees went back to the well and targeted two hard-throwing pitchers with iffy command. That seems to be their specialty. I’d feel much better about the return — for what it’s worth, Abreu and Guzman do have an awful lot of upside, especially Abreu — if I had any confidence in the Yankees being able to develop pitchers like this. Their track record is not good at all. (Yes, I know developing pitchers is hard.) Maybe things will be better under Gary Denbo, who has only been in charge of the player development system for two years. Besides, you don’t stop trying to develop these types of players just because you haven’t had success doing it. Still, don’t be afraid to mix in a guy with lesser stuff but some command and pitchability now and then, fellas. Diversify that portfolio, yo. Not everyone needs the organizational stamp.

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

5. Not to be overlooked part of this trade: the money. The Yankees are paying $11M of the $34M owed to McCann the next two years, and while that’s not an insignificant chunk of change, they are saving $23M total. That money is going to be really helpful as the team attempts to get under the luxury tax threshold. It might not happen next season, so the $11.5M savings in 2017 might not be much of a factor. But that $11.5M in savings in 2018? That’s going to go a long way towards helping the Yankees get under the threshold, whatever it may be. That’s the year to do it, when Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia come off the books. Maybe Masahiro Tanaka too. I couldn’t care less about the Yankees saving money, but I’m sure ownership loves it.

6. Right now, New York’s best left-handed hitting power threat is Didi Gregorius. Yikes. Hopefully Bird helps out in that department, but after missing an entire season following shoulder surgery, I don’t think you can count on him. I’m sure the Yankees will sign a veteran DH now — so do you think Beltran is going to sign before Thanksgiving, or wait until after the holiday? — and hopefully that guy will provide some left-handed thump. That short porch might get mighty lonely next season. The Yankees don’t have too many guys on the roster who can take advantage of it at the moment.

7. I think it would behoove the Yankees to pick up a veteran backup catcher. Austin Romine did an okay job this year, and Kyle Higashioka is waiting in Triple-A, but I don’t really feel comfortable with those two as the safety nets for Sanchez. Throwing a few million bucks at someone like, say, Alex Avila or Giovanny Soto to back up Sanchez might not be such a bad idea. It gives the Yankees some depth in case Sanchez has a rocky year — I love Sanchez, he’s awesome, but even the most talented young catchers can struggle early in their careers, it’s a tough position — and also someone to help mentor the young backstop. Going with Romine and Higashioka as the top two catchers behind Sanchez is asking for trouble.

8. Along those same lines, I’m interested to see whether the Yankees do anything to replace some of the leadership they’ve lost in the last few months. McCann, A-Rod, Beltran, and Mark Teixeira are all gone. They’re down to Sabathia and Brett Gardner, based on everything we’ve heard about the team’s leadership core over the last few years. I don’t think this is a huge deal, but I’m not in the clubhouse. I’m just curious to see how the Yankees react. They’re going young now and they’re going to want some veteran guys to show the kids the ropes and things like that. Sabathia and Gardner can’t do it all, can they? Does it even matter?

9. The Yankees are going to go from a boring 84-win team to an exciting 78-win team*, aren’t they? There will inevitably be growing pains next year. The kids aren’t all going to hit the ground running like Sanchez. When you go young like the Yankees seem likely to do, things often get worse before they get better. At least it’ll be more fun to watch the kids play though, you know? The Yankees were boring for long stretches of time this year. They weren’t scoring and most of the regulars were old. It was hard to feel good about the team’s direction. At least with the kids, there’s some hope for the future. It might not work! They could all flop and the Yankees could be headed into a downward spiral for the next decade. But at least now there’s a chance at a better future. Watching the same veterans get older and less productive with each passing year wasn’t much fun, and McCann was part of that.

* Update: 78 is too low. Should have said something like 82 wins instead. Still, point stands.

Yankees trade Brian McCann to Astros for two pitching prospects

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

For the fourth straight offseason and fifth time in the last six offseasons, the Yankees have traded a catcher. Brian McCann has been traded to the Astros for right-handed pitching prospects Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman, both teams announced. The Yankees are paying $5.5M of McCann’s $17M salary in both 2017 and 2018, according to Buster Olney. That’s $11.5M in savings each of the next two years.

McCann has been on the trade market since the deadline, even before Gary Sanchez arrived in August and smashed 20 homers in 52 games. Sanchez is the clear cut starter going forward, so McCann’s role in New York would have been backup catcher and part-time DH. It’s no surprise then that he waived his no-trade clause to go to the Astros, who figure to be in contention and can offer him more playing time.

“It was a tough, tough decision,” said B.B. Abbott, McCann’s agent, to Brendan Kuty. “This is a bittersweet day for him. It was a very tough decision for him. He’s very excited to be part of what Houston has going on and it was tough and will be tough to say goodbye to a really good organization and some teammates he’s come really close to.”

In three seasons with the Yankees, the soon-to-be 33-year-old McCann hit .235/.313/.418 (101 wRC+) with 69 home runs in 405 games. There’s nothing sexy at all about a 101 wRC+, but the average catcher hit .242/.310/.391 (87 wRC+) in 2016, and McCann is still comfortably above that. He was rock solid behind the plate for the Yankees the last three years. Well, two years and four months before Sanchez arrived.

In the past six offseasons, the Yankees have traded Jesus Montero (2011-12), let Russell Martin walk as a free agent (2012-13), traded Chris Stewart (2013-14), traded Francisco Cervelli (2014-15), traded John Ryan Murphy (2015-16), and now traded McCann (2016-17). That’s an awful lot of catching going out the door. It would be more of a problem if, you know, they still didn’t have Gary freaking Sanchez. No team can match New York’s recent catching capital.

Abreu is the better prospect of the two coming to the Yankees. Prior to the trade, MLB.com ranked him as the seventh best prospect in Houston’s system, and J.J. Cooper says Baseball America had him as the fifth best pitching prospect in that organization. The 21-year-old Abreu had a 3.71 ERA (4.07 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts and 12.9% walks in 104.1 innings at mostly Low Class-A this past season, but also some High-A.

Guzman, 20, did not rank among MLB.com’s top 30 Astros prospects before the trade, though Cooper says he was eighth among pitchers in Houston’s farm system. The right-hander had a 4.05 ERA (2.64 FIP) with 32.1% strikeouts and 10.1% walks in 40 rookie ball innings in 2016. Needless to say, neither Abreu nor Guzman is knocking on the door of the big leagues at the moment. The Yankees took a long-term approach with this trade. Here are some scouting reports:

  • J.J. Cooper: “Albert Abreu has 4 pitches, touches 99. Jorge Guzman is better when he gears down to 97-99, touches 102-103. Good pickups for Yanks.”
  • Eric Longenhagen: “New Yankees prospect Albert Abreu: 91-95, can touch 97-98. Very explosive arm action, change has significant projection, curve already plus.”
  • Ben Badler: “I like Albert Abreu. Needs to improve command, but it’s a starter mix on a power arm up to 99 mph with two swing-and-miss breaking pitches.”

Baseball America has lengthier scouting reports right here. Neither Abreu nor Guzman is on the 40-man roster. As best I can tell, Abreu will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, Guzman the offseason after that. I reserve the right to be completely wrong though. This stuff is tricky. The Yankees do free up a 40-man roster spot right now though. I’m certain of that.

The Yankees began the process of shedding veterans at the trade deadline, when they traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran for prospects (and Adam Warren). Ivan Nova was traded too. McCann was a prime candidate to go this offseason, assuming they could work through his no-trade clause. Brett Gardner can’t be feeling too comfortable right now, huh?

Don’t Trade McCann

No bats, only rebar. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

I have repeated this recently and will likely keep doing so until it either happens or doesn’t: the Yankees shouldn’t trade Brian McCann this offseason. The necessary caveat of ‘never say never’ applies, but as I see things, that perfect scenario is unlikely to occur. Like Mike laid out in his offseason plan, I’m of the belief that McCann should be retained:

Yes, I am keeping Brian McCann. I think he’s way more valuable to the Yankees on their roster as a part-time catcher/part-time DH than anything he could realistically fetch in a trade. He’s the perfect guy to mentor Gary Sanchez, and hey, if Sanchez falls on his face next year like Severino did this year, it’ll sure be nice to have McCann around. Quality lefty hitting catcher: worth keeping.

Unless the Yankees get supremely blown away by some deal that includes the other team taking on money AND sending back a prospect (not gonna happen), he’s likely to be more valuable to the Yankees than the trade pieces he fetches. After seeing the team shed Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran last season — all good moves, all right moves — it seems that a lot of fans got blood lust for trading veterans at any cost. And with Alex Rodriguez gone by mid-August, Mark Teixeira retiring, and CC Sabathia (and Jacoby Ellsbury) virtually unmovable, fans set their sights on a desire to deal McCann. And that sentiment is totally understandable, but perhaps a bit misguided.

Unlike those players traded at the 2016 deadline, McCann still has time left on his contract. And unlike Sabathia — fairly good 2016 notwithstanding — and Ellsbury, he’s still close enough to his true-talent level to keep around. Since joining the Yankees in 2014, McCann leads all AL catchers with 69 homers and is tied with Salvador Perez for first in fWAR at 6.7. He’s also second in wRC+ at 101, just behind Russell Martin and Stephen Vogt’s tied tally of 106.

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)
(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

Keeping McCann allows the Yankees patience in the further development of Gary Sanchez, as Mike noted above, and keeps strong bats in the lineup most every day. Both players have bats — and gloves, for that matter — that are worth keeping in the lineup each day and putting them in some sort of catching rotation maximizes their time at the plate and keeps them healthy for the times they’re behind it. Having them split time at catcher and DH — and maybe on occasional day a first for McCann in the event of Greg Bird needing a rest — is good for them personally and good for the team; not having a ‘backup’ type catcher means less chances of essentially punting games when the primary guy needs a day off.

For now, the Yankees should hold off on trading Brian McCann. That’s the stance I’m going to take and the hill I’m going to defend until further notice. Would trading him save the team some cash? Definitely. Would it bring back impact talent? Maybe. That second question needs to be a lot more sure, as does the Yankees’ roster situation. While it’s not horribly likely the team will be a 90+ win team competing for more than the wild card spot, that outlook could change by the end of the Hot Stove season. McCann could be a big part of a wining team. If it doesn’t work out that way, though, I’m always willing to reconsider around deadline time. But for now, don’t trade McCann.

Hot Stove Notes: Jansen, Melancon, Cespedes, Bautista

Kenley. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)
Kenley. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon the GM Meetings wrapped up in Scottsdale and everyone headed home to really get down to offseason business. This week we learned the Yankees have already been in touch with Aroldis Chapman’s people, have some interest in Kendrys Morales, and have identified a possible trade partner for Brian McCann. Here are some more bits of news and notes from the GM Meetings.

Yankees willing to eat money to move McCann

According to Jeff Passan, the Yankees have expressed a willingness to eat up to half the $34M left on McCann’s contract to facilitate a trade. The catch: they want better young players in return. That’s usually how this works. I said yesterday I hope the Yankees are open to eating some money in exchange for a better return, and it appears they are willing to do just that. Hooray.

Yankees reached out to Jansen, Melancon

In addition to Chapman, the Yankees reached out to the representatives for both Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon this week, reports Brendan Kuty. The Yankees are said to be targeting a top free agent reliever this winter, and those two along with Chapman are by far the best available. Jansen received a qualifying offer and will cost a draft pick. Chapman and Melancon will not. They were ineligible for the qualifying offer after being traded at midseason.

There’s been some talk we could see the first $100M reliever this offseason — Jonathan Papelbon’s $50M deal with the Phillies is still the largest contract ever given to a reliever, so we’re talking about doubling that — but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think teams are ready to commit that much to a 65-inning pitcher, even if they are 65 high-leverage innings. Andrew Miller‘s postseason usage is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Once we get further away from that and people remember relievers don’t get used like that all the time, contract expectations will change.

Yankees planning to talk to Hill

Amazingly, the best free agent starter on the market this year is journeyman southpaw Rich Hill, who reinvented himself two years ago by raising his arm angle and moving to the extreme third base side of the rubber. Brian Cashman told Kuty he intends to reach out to Hill, who pitched out of the bullpen for the Yankees in September 2014, at some point soon.

“I can’t remember if I have (reached out to him) or not. Let’s put it this way. I will be reaching out to Rich’s agent if I haven’t yet. I have a to-do list I’m working through,” said the GM. Hill will be 37 in March and he hasn’t thrown more than 120 innings since 2007, but the market is so light on starting pitching that he’s going to end up with a three-year contract. When healthy this year, Hill pitched like an ace (2.12 ERA and 2.39 FIP). The Yankees need pitching too, so checking in on the best available starter only makes sense.

Yankees have checked in on Cespedes, Bautista

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

The Yankees have reached out to free agent sluggers Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Bautista, reports Jon Heyman. Both guys would give the team some much-needed middle of the order thump, but Cashman downplayed their interest and chalked it up to due diligence. “I’m open to anything. But as of right now, we’re going to let the kids take a shot. Our current focus is to let the kids try to take the job,” he said.

Bautista and especially Cespedes are true impact bats who change the entire complexion of the lineup. The Yankees could use a hitter like that! Right now, given the team’s current situation, spending big on a corner outfield bat over 30 doesn’t seem like the best idea. If they were ready to win right now, then yes, sign one of those guys. But the Yankees aren’t. They’re right to prioritize the kids, especially with Aaron Judge arriving this past season and Clint Frazier not far behind.

Yankees in on Logan

Blast from the past: The Yankees are among the teams interested in lefty Boone Logan, according to Joel Sherman. Right now Tommy Layne is New York’s top lefty reliever, and he’s followed on the depth chart by guys like Richard Bleier and Chasen Shreve. Eh. I don’t blame the Yankees at all for looking at the bullpen lefty market. Here’s 2016 Logan vs. 2016 Layne:

IP ERA FIP AVG/OBP/SLG vs. LHB K% vs. LHB BB% vs. LHB GB% vs. LHB
Logan 46.1 3.69 3.23 .139/.222/.255 33.6% 7.6% 60.6%
Layne 44.2 3.63 3.93 .214/.310/.261 20.8% 9.9% 51.6%

The question really isn’t whether Logan is better than Layne. It’s whether Logan is better than Bleier and Shreve and James Pazos. Those guys. I don’t love the idea of carrying two lefty specialists in the bullpen, especially with a rotation that doesn’t pitch deep into games, but it is doable. My guess is Logan gets more money elsewhere and the Yankees are just kicking the tires out of due diligence.

Teams calling on Andujar

The Yankees are getting phone calls and receiving trade interest in third base prospect Miguel Andujar, reports Kuty. “I get a lot of compliments on him from other clubs, a lot of teams asking me about him. He’s going to be a big leaguer,” said Cashman. I’m guessing Andujar is not the team’s only prospect generating trade interest. The Yankees have many quality players in their system at the moment.

Andujar, 22 in March, is currently hitting .309/.400/.392 (122 wRC+) with more walks (nine) than strikeouts (seven) through 16 Arizona Fall League games. He broke out with a .270/.327/.407 (108 wRC+) batting line and 12 home runs in 137 games split between High-A and Double-A during the regular season. Andujar is the closest thing the Yankees have to a third baseman of the future, and while I certainly wouldn’t make him off-limits in trade talks, I am excited to see him take another step forward in 2017.

Reports: Yankees have identified trade partner for Brian McCann; Astros interested

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

As expected, the Brian McCann trade rumor mill has started to heat up early in the offseason. The Yankees weighed offers for their erstwhile catcher at the trade deadline, most notably from the Braves, and are expected to do the same this winter. They’re trying to get younger and under the luxury tax threshold in the near future. Moving McCann would help accomplish both.

“The catching market is very thin, so it’s not surprising to anybody (teams are interested in McCann),” said Brian Cashman to Ken Davidoff and Joel Sherman at the GM Meetings this week. “A lot of teams have expressed interest and offers that I’ve said no to. If I ever get to a point where something makes enough sense, then Mac will have the final say, as he’s earned the right to have that final say.”

According to Mark Feinsand, Cashman has already identified one realistic trade partner for McCann. Jon Morosi says the Astros are interested — it’s unclear whether Houston is the team identified as a realistic trade partner — which makes sense. They need a catcher now that Jason Castro is a free agent — they played Evan Gattis behind the plate 55 times last year, yikes — and also a lefty bat to balance their lineup. Some notes and thoughts on all this:

1. Remember, McCann is in control here. McCann has a full no-trade clause, so he is in total control of the situation. He doesn’t have to go anywhere he doesn’t want to go. In fact, Sherman says Cashman “has deals he can make for Brian McCann right now,” but has waved them off because McCann is unlikely to accept a trade to those teams. McCann hasn’t given the Yankees a list of approved clubs. He’ll look at it on a case-by-case basis.

“I haven’t said, ‘Hey he has to be here or it’s not going to happen.’ Nor has Mac given me permission to do that,” said B.B. Abbott, McCann’s agent, to Sherman. “Mac basically wants them to come to him. If Cash says there is a deal in place, then I’ll go to Mac and he will say nay or yay … I don’t think this is a slam dunk that it happens, I really don’t. He made a choice to be in New York because that is where he wants to be and he got a full no-trade clause because of that.”

Ken Rosenthal says McCann prefers the American League because he doesn’t want to catch 120+ games a year anymore, and wants to be able to DH. Apparently he told the Yankees he felt better physically in September than he had in years after handing the catching reins over to Gary Sanchez. That said, Rosenthal added McCann would also approve a trade to the Braves, his hometown team.

2. Okay, so what could the Yankees get from the Astros? Supposedly the Yankees want young pitching in a McCann trade. That’s the long-term need, anyway. The Yankees pushed for Lance McCullers Jr. (and Vince Velasquez) during Andrew Miller trade talks with Houston last offseason, but it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen for McCann. (Velasquez is with the Phillies now anyway.)

Musgrove. (Denis Poroy/Getty)
Musgrove. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

Even after removing McCullers from consideration, the Astros still have a handful of young arms worth targeting in a McCann trade. None of them are future aces — the Yankees aren’t getting anyone with that kind of upside for McCann anyway — though a few of them are potential long-term rotation pieces. Let’s run them down quickly (2016 ERA/FIP):

  • RHP Chris Devenski (2.16/2.34 in 108.1 IP): Devenski, 26 on Sunday, spent most of the season in the bullpen. He has four pitches though, so there’s at least a chance he can start. Devenski’s minor league track record isn’t great, and given his success as a reliever in 2016, my guess is he’s a bullpener for life now. Once a fringe guy has that much success in relief, he usually stays there.
  • RHP Michael Feliz (4.43/3.24 FIP in 65 IP): The 23-year-old Feliz has the Michael Pineda starter kit: mid-90s gas and a wipeout slider, but his changeup lags. Like Devenski, he spent most of the season in the bullpen, but I think he’ll get another chance to start given his age.
  • RHP Joe Musgrove (4.06/4.81 FIP in 62 IP): Musgrove was a top 100 prospect last year but he doesn’t look like a typical top pitching prospect. He’s a command and control guy with a low-90s gas and three secondary pitches (slider, curve, change). Musgrove turns 24 next month.
  • RHP David Paulino (5.14/4.29 in 7 IP): Paulino is a flamethrower. He sits mid-90s and touches 99 mph, even as a starter, and his curveball is an out-pitch. He’s still working on his changeup though. Paulino turns 23 in February. He missed all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery.
  • RHP Brady Rodgers (15.12/5.31 in 8.1 IP): Rodgers, 26, is the least heralded pitcher in this post, but the guy legitimately throws six pitches (four-seamer, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup) and he locates. Nothing sexy about him, but he’ll be a big leaguer for a while, even with a fastball that sits 90 mph.

Here is MLB.com’s top 30 Astros prospects list, if you’re interested in looking that over. My top three targets are Musgrove, Feliz, and Devenski, in that order, and I want the Yankees to get another piece too. You can’t trade a top ten catcher, even one on the wrong side of 30 like McCann, straight up for a pitching prospect. That’s asking for trouble. The second piece doesn’t have to be great, but there has to be something else.

3. The Yankees should be open to eating money. Money is the single biggest advantage the Yankees have over the rest of the league. Hal Steinbrenner is content with marginalizing that advantage by focusing on getting under the luxury tax, but it’s still an advantage. The Yankees should absolutely be willing to eat some of the $34M left owed to McCann the next two years in order to get a larger return. They ate money to facilitate the Carlos Beltran trade at the deadline, so I assume they’re willing to do the same with McCann. It just needed to be said. Essentially trading money for prospects is exactly the kind of move the Yankees should make.

4. Again: The Yankees don’t have to trade McCann! I’ve said this a bunch of times already and I get the feeling I’m going to repeat it another hundred times before the end of the offseason. The Yankees don’t have to trade McCann. Keeping him is a viable option. Having the best catching tandem in baseball sure would be cool, right? Especially since the two guys hit from opposite sides of the plate.

“Based on his success the past season, Sanchez is the everyday catcher. (McCann) can DH and catch a minimum of two games a week. We have two power-hitting catchers, one right and one left who hit 20 homers,” said Cashman to George King. By all means, take offers for McCann and negotiate like hell. If someone steps up with a strong offer, great, take it. If not, just keep him. No need to make a move for the sake of making a move.

The Erstwhile Catcher [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are built around left-handed power and strong defense. That’s the plan, anyway. They want guys who can yank a ball into the short porch while adding value in the field. For the most part, no one fits that mold better than Brian McCann, the club’s starting catcher coming into 2016. He has that lefty pop and has long been a good defender.

After starting the season as the undisputed No. 1 catcher, McCann finished the 2016 season as the Yankees’ primary DH. And it wasn’t because he didn’t perform. The Yankees fell out of the race and focused on youth in the second half, which meant Gary Sanchez got priority at-bats behind the plate. McCann had his role reduced because, well, how else is Sanchez supposed to play?

The First Few Months as a Catcher

Prior to the trade deadline Carlos Beltran was the Yankees’ best hitter and Didi Gregorius was their best all-around player. McCann was probably their third best hitter and second best all around player. That’s as much an indictment of the rest of the lineup as it is praise for McCann.

In 324 plate appearances prior to the deadline, McCann hit .236/.336/.429 (107 wRC+) with 15 home runs. I know that doesn’t seem great, but keep in mind the league average catcher hit .242/.310/.391 (87 wRC+) in 2016. Catchers stink. They can’t hit, generally speaking. By catcher standards, McCann is still comfortably above-average at the plate.

McCann’s biggest hit of the season was also arguably the biggest hit of the season for the Yankees. On June 29th, he clubbed a game-tying three-run home run off Rangers closer Sam Dyson with one out in the ninth inning. The Yankees were down 7-3 to start the inning. They then went on to win 9-7 on Gregorius’ walk-off homer.

The Yankees had a really hard time scoring runs for the first four or so months of the season. The offense is the single biggest reason they missed the postseason. No doubt about it. McCann was not part of the problem. He performed as expected prior to the trade deadline. McCann had that 107 wRC+ in his first 324 plate appearances after having a 106 wRC+ last year. He held up his end of the bargain.

The Position Change

After trading Beltran and other veterans at the deadline, the Yankees turned things over to their young players, and that meant lots of playing time for Sanchez. The team wasn’t subtle about it either. Sanchez was called up on August 3rd, played two games at DH, then took over behind the plate. Starting August 5th, McCann started one of the next 16 games at catcher. He caught only eleven times in the final 54 games of 2016. That’s it.

Many veteran players would be upset about a young player taking their job at midseason, especially when playing well. Sanchez didn’t even take the job, really. The Yankees just gave it to him. It wasn’t until about a week after being installed as the starter that Sanchez’s home run barrage started. McCann had every reason and every right to be unhappy. If he was though, he never let it be known. He did nothing but praise Sanchez.

“He’s a stud. Know what I’m saying? This is the time where he’s going to play and he’s going to play a lot,” said McCann in early-August after it become clear Sanchez was the new No. 1 guy behind the plate. “I consider (Sanchez) one of the better — if not one of the best — young catchers I’ve seen since I’ve been in the big leagues.”

McCann’s numbers as a DH were actually better than his numbers as a catcher, though the shape of his production was different. He was a low batting average guy who hit for power as a catcher. As a DH, he hit for more average and less power, hence a .284/.373/.402 (114 wRC+) batting line. Only three of his 20 home runs came as the DH, but look at that batting average and on-base percentage!

In theory, McCann’s numbers should tick up as the DH because he’s free from the rigors of catching. At the same time, he had to make the adjustment to not playing as much. Sitting for 45 minutes or so between at-bats can be difficult when you’re used to playing defense. Especially for an ex-catcher who is used to being in on every pitch. McCann hit .174/.309/.261 (63 wRC+) in his first three weeks as the DH. It was .297/.356/.462 (121 wRC+) thereafter.

As well as McCann finished the season as the DH, we have to remember the bar has been raised. Catchers usually don’t hit. DHs only hit. As a catcher, McCann had a 103 wRC+ compared to the 87 wRC+ average. As a DH, McCann had a 114 wRC+ compared to the 115 wRC+ league average. He went from an above-average hitting catcher to an average hitting DH. That’s the downside of the move.

The Struggles Against Lefties

For the first time as a Yankee, McCann had a big platoon split this past season. He struggled against lefties while with the Braves, especially his final few years in Atlanta, but he figured them out a bit the last two years. This year … no luck. Here’s a quick graph of his left-right production:

Brian McCann splitsThe blue line, McCann’s wOBA against southpaws, made a nice jump from 2014-15. The 2016 season was much more in line with 2012-13, however. It’s entirely possible this is all sample size noise. McCann never batted more than 145 times against lefties in a single season from 2013-16, and that’s spread across 162 games. His batted ball profile didn’t change much either. The only big difference against lefties was a 19.2 HR/FB% from 2014-15 and a 12.0 HR/FB% in 2016.

McCann’s above-average production against southpaws during his first two years in pinstripes was a nice little surprise. He hadn’t hit lefties much in the years prior, then bam, he was suddenly doing real damage against them. That didn’t happen this year. Based on the rest of his career, 2014-15 are the outlier, not 2016. McCann figures to need a platoon partner going forward, and it just so happens the Yankees have a pretty good righty hitting catcher on their roster.

The Rebound on Defense

The Yankees moved McCann from catcher to DH to give Sanchez playing time. McCann didn’t force the move by playing poor defense. I actually thought his defense was better this year than last year, based on the eye test. Last season McCann let what seemed like a lot of blockable balls scoot by. That didn’t happen as much this past season. Here are some catcher defense numbers:

SB% Baseball Prospectus Framing StatCorner Framing FRAA
2013 24.2% +10.2 +9.9 +10.0
2014 37.2% +9.7 +11.4 +12.1
2015 35.9% -3.9 -2.5 -2.1
2016 23.0% +9.6 +5.7 +10.2

One of those years is not like the others. FRAA, which is Baseball Prospectus’ attempt at an all-encompassing catcher defense stat, has rated McCann’s glovework as excellent in three of the last four years. Last year was the outlier, which jibes with what I saw while watching the games. Players have down years in the field the same way they have down years at the plate. It’s entirely possible 2015 was a down defensive year for McCann and nothing more.

The caught stealing numbers are interesting and we might have an actual explanation for them: Gary Tuck. Tuck, a longtime catching guru, was New York’s bullpen coach from 2014-15 and McCann credited him with improving his throwing. “Gary Tuck. He’s changed the way I catch and throw,” said McCann two years ago. “We work on it every day together. I’m getting the ball out quick. No wasted movement … I’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on.”

The Yankees let Tuck go last offseason, reportedly because he was at odds with the front office over the way they use analytics, and replaced him with Mike Harkey. McCann worked with Tuck in 2014-15 and was awesome at throwing out runners. He did not have Tuck around prior to 2014 or in 2016 and his throwing suffered. Correlation does not equal causation, but when the player says “this coach fixed this,” you kinda have to believe him.

Overall, McCann had a fine season defensively. A bounceback season, really. His throwing wasn’t very good — the MLB average was a 28.3% caught stealing rate — but he was above-average at the other aspects of catching. The Yankees didn’t move McCann to DH because his defense was inadequate. They moved him because it’s time to build a new young core and Sanchez is the future behind the plate. It really is that simple.

Outlook for 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to multiple reports, the Yankees listened to trade offers for McCann at the deadline, with the most serious interest coming from the Braves. Atlanta understandably did not want to take on much money or give up top prospects. The Yankees reportedly asked for Mike Foltynewicz and Ender Inciarte in return. No deal got done at the deadline but this definitely seems like something that will be revisited in the offseason.

McCann said he hopes to remain with the Yankees, for what it’s worth. And he does have complete control here. He has a full no-trade clause and if he wants to stay in New York, he will. Would he prefer to be a full-time catcher elsewhere or a part-time catcher and most-of-the-time DH with the Yankees? That’s a question we can’t answer and a question McCann probably can’t answer until he finds out where he might be going.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think holding onto McCann next season would be a really good idea. Having two quality catchers* is a big plus, especially when they hit from opposite sides of the plate. At the same time, of course the Yankees should see what offers are out there. They’d be foolish not too. I just wouldn’t give McCann away though.

* Fun Fact: The 2016 Yankees were the third team in history with two catchers who each hit 20+ home runs. The 1961 Yankees (Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard) and 1965 Milwaukee Braves (Joe Torre and Gene Oliver) also did it. Nice work, Gary and Brian.

Brian Cashman made it clear he values McCann highly at his end-of-season press conference, so if the Yankees do trade their erstwhile catcher this offseason, they’ll probably going to get a nice return. Quality catchers are so hard to find these days, and while Sanchez is clearly the catcher of the future, keeping McCann as a mentor and backup plan makes a world of sense to me.

McCann hopes to remain with Yankees despite Sanchez’s emergence as the No. 1 catcher

(Getty)
(Getty)

I can’t imagine the 2016 season was easy for Brian McCann. He had a good year statistically, hitting .242/.335/.413 (103 wRC+) with 20 home runs, but he also lost his starting catching job to Gary Sanchez. McCann had been a full-time big league catcher since he was 21, then bam, he was the full-time DH. That couldn’t have been an easy pill to swallow.

To McCann’s credit, he never complained about his playing time, and in fact he went out of his way to praise Sanchez. That’s not surprising. By all accounts McCann is a good dude and a leader in the clubhouse. He knows what’s up. He saw Carlos Beltran get traded away and Alex Rodriguez get cut loose. McCann knows the Yankees are going young and Sanchez is the future behind the plate.

“Listen. Gary is the starting catcher here. He’s going to be that for a long, long time,” said McCann to Chad Jennings at the end of the season. “Just have to kind of see where my role fits in; see where everything fits … I hope I’m back. I’m not sure how it’s all going to play out, but the future is extremely bright here. … I love it here. I love everything about it. Bright future. And I hope I’m a part of it.”

The Yankees listed to trade offers for McCann at the deadline and Buster Olney (subs. req’d) says the expectation is the team is “far more likely” to move their erstwhile catcher than keep him for next season. The free agent catching market is thin, especially following Wilson Ramos’ knee injury, and the Yankees have a chance to take advantage, the same way they took advantage of the bullpen market at the trade deadline.

Brian Cashman made it clear during his end-of-season press conference that he values McCann highly. I believe a) that is completely true, and b) Cashman was making sure not to tip his hand going into the offseason. Having two starting caliber catchers sure is a nice luxury, especially when they hit from opposite sides of the plate. At the same time, the Yankees are going young, and McCann doesn’t fit.

One other thing to keep in mind: the option year in McCann’s contract. Right now it’s a $15M club option for 2019 with no buyout. McCann can turn it into a player option by meeting the following criteria:

  • Rack up 1,000 plate appearances from 2017-18;
  • Play 90 games at catcher in 2018;
  • Do not end 2018 on the DL.

McCann has to meet all of that criteria to turn the club option into a vesting option. It’s not one of the three like CC Sabathia‘s vesting option. It’s all three. With Sanchez entrenched as the new No. 1 catcher, McCann’s going to have a hard time meeting that playing time criteria with the Yankees. The option could make him more receptive to waiving his no-trade clause.

Then again, maybe McCann doesn’t care about the option. He’s signed over $110M worth of contracts in his career. His priority may be winning a World Series, and with young talent the Yankees have coming up, McCann may see New York as his best chance to win a ring. At least compared to other possible landing spots, like the Braves or Astros. He genuinely seems to like New York too.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think keeping McCann makes a lot of sense. He can mentor Sanchez, provide left-handed pop, and serve as one heck of a Plan B behind the plate. I like Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka. They’re no McCann though. That said, if a trade comes up that makes sense, preferably something involving a young pitcher, then go for it. There’s always a point where the price is right.

For now, the Yankees are in the driver’s seat. They don’t have to trade McCann. The free agent catching market stinks and the Yankees are in position to let the trade market come to them. The same was true at the deadline with Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees controlled the market and got themselves big returns. With any luck, the McCann trade market will play out the same way.