At the trade deadline, Brian McCann‘s name was a somewhat surprising addition to the rumor mill. Sure, the Yankees were sellers and Gary Sanchez was waiting in the wings at Triple-A, but it was hard to imagine the team handing a rookie the keys to the position without any gradual grooming at the highest level. Three weeks later, Sanchez’ ascension might hasten McCann’s departure from the Bronx. It could happen in the next week or so if another contender wants to have him eligible for its playoff roster (McCann has cleared waivers). The front office could wait until the winter to move him, as no immediate decision is necessary with McCann under contract for another two years. Perhaps no trade ever culminates.
While the lefty-swinging catcher’s future in the Bronx is murky, it’s clear that the 24-year old Sanchez has been tabbed as the club’s long-term catcher. Is it time for the Yankees and McCann to part ways, or should the veteran catcher stay aboard? Both options have merits and drawbacks.
McCann would be an excellent mentor for Sanchez. McCann is now a 11-year veteran and could theoretically offer a great deal to the up-and-coming Sanchez. The obvious: pitch-calling strategy and staff management amongst other tricks of the trade. McCann could also offer insight about handling the expectations of being a top prospect and breaking into the league at such a young age (McCann was only 21). Although we can’t quantify or necessarily see how an apprenticeship might help Sanchez, it’s reasonable to believe that it can be beneficial.
He provides lefty power that the Yankees lack. Next year, the Yankees best left-handed hitter under contract, other than McCann, will be…Didi Gregorius? Look, Didi has been great this season and is a staple going forward, but the Yankees without a left-handed slugger is like a burger without a bun. Sure, you might find the burger to still be good, but it’s not what you’re used to. Carbs are tantalizing, just like lefty boppers in Yankee Stadium. Yes, Greg Bird will be back next season, but counting on him returning from shoulder surgery is a risky proposition. Keeping McCann maintains a serious Yankee Stadium short-porch threat in the lineup.
At worst, he’s still the second best catcher in the organization. It’s very possible that Sanchez is already better than McCann. There’s a big dropoff on the depth chart after those two. Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka? Not in the same stratosphere as McCann. To field the best team, the Yankees should field the best players. McCann fits that mold even if he’s the secondary catcher while becoming the primary designated hitter.
He might be able to play some first base. Joe Girardi has occasionally stuck McCann at first in each of his three seasons here. Nobody will mistake him for Mark Teixeira defensively, but it seems that he could manage first base in a pinch. If there are any hiccups with Bird’s return from shoulder surgery, the Yankees will need a viable alternative. Perhaps McCann could be that guy.
He’s expensive. McCann has $34M coming to him through 2018, and potentially another $15M if his 2019 options vests. That’s a lot of money to spend on a part-time catcher and regular designated hitter, especially for a guy whose bat profiles better behind the plate. In his career in pinstripes, McCann has posted a perfectly average 100 wRC+. For a catcher, that’s very good. For a designated hitter? Not great.
He’s declined in some key areas.*
|Avg. Hit Velocity||N/A||89.2 MPH||88.7 MPH|
|Avg. FB Distance||N/A||330.4 ft||318.9 ft|
|Avg. LD Distance||N/A||276.3 ft||260.7 ft|
That’s not a good outlook.
Salary relief could allow the Yankees to reallocate money to other needs. Based on early trade rumors, the Yankees will have to eat some of the remaining money. But if the team is truly committed to playing Sanchez, any savings might be better spent elsewhere. As an added benefit, especially to Hal Steinbrenner, dumping some or all of McCann’s contract could help the Yankees avoid paying the luxury tax.
Moving McCann opens the door for Romine and Higashioka. Romine is out of options. Assuming the Yankees want to hold onto Romine, the roster would need to carry three catchers in 2017 if McCann is kept aboard. Perhaps giving more time to Romine isn’t necessarily a “pro” considering his lackluster batting line, but he does have experience with the pitching staff and is reliable defensively.
Creating a path for Higashioka is a bit more intriguing. Drafted way back in 2008, Higashioka has been a defense-first backstop with a weak bat. Seemingly out of nowhere, he’s posted a 148 wRC+ and a .248 ISO split between Double- and Triple-A this season, good enough to make him KATOH’s 68th-best prospect. That’s extremely impressive considering KATOH’s penalty for older players, as Higashioka is already 26. He might not be a starter in the big leagues, but he could carve out a career as a reserve.
Gary Sanchez officially takes over. This is the long-term plan, so why not institute it now? He’s off to a great start and is projected to be very good.
Making Sanchez the full-time catcher as a 24 year-old is a lot to ask. In the last 20 years, there have only been 30 individual seasons of a catcher 24 years or younger playing enough to receive 400 or more plate appearances (Thanks, Play Index). Only 20 different players have been given the task during that span. Judging by the list below, it initially seems that these players have actually fared quite well.
However, there’s selection bias at hand here – teams don’t allow just anyone to be their primary catcher at such a young age. That a good portion of these catchers thrived doesn’t tell the entire story. What’s at play is a combination of the reluctance to regularly play catchers at such a young age and the scarcity of young Major league ready backstops. That’s why there are so many repeated names on the list (i.e. McCann, Joe Mauer, and Russell Martin to name a few). The repeats were top prospects expected to be immediately successful, even at such a young age.
While Sanchez is a top prospect and has already had success this season, it’s highly unlikely he plays at an All-Star caliber level right out of the gate. Being a league average catcher isn’t even a certainty. Hell, Yadier Molina performed at replacement level as a 23 year-old. Ben Davis and Mike Zunino were supposed to be future stars, and stumbled right out of the gate (and didn’t recover). The consensus is that Sanchez has a bright future, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him struggle in a full-time role next season. If the Yankees are serious about contending in 2017, McCann would still be a great insurance policy should Sanchez falter.
If the Yankees still want to add a veteran catcher to mentor Sanchez, there upcoming free agenct options are poor. Per Baseball Prospectus, the available catchers this winter without any options for 2017 are: Drew Butera, Jason Castro, A.J. Ellis, Ryan Hanigan, Nick Hundley, Wilson Ramos, David Ross, Chris Stewart, Josh Thole, Matt Wieters. Forget Ramos and Wieters; both of those players will be starters somewhere else next season. The rest of the names? Yuck. Jason Castro is the best of the remaining. While he grades out very well defensively, Castro no longer offers much as a hitter. He might also be able to land a starting job next year, too.
While I am hesitant about having a 24 year-old starting catcher, there’s no better time for the Yankees to go forward in doing so. After selling at the deadline and working in other prospects in recent weeks, the franchise is clearly gearing up for the future. Sanchez has been exciting to watch, and even if he has to cut his teeth next season without McCann in tow, I’m willing to watch the growing pains. Sanchez probably would probably receive the bulk of the catching duty even if McCann remains in the Bronx, but moving McCann could address other issues on the roster. Whether it’s adding another prospect or two, shedding some salary, or acquiring another Major League player in return, McCann is better served as a trade asset at this time.
*Hit velocity and batted ball distances courtesy of Baseball Savant.