Simply put, Brian McCann was to repeat what he did in 2015: maintain his strong defensive reputation behind the dish, manage the pitching staff, and hit 25 dingers or so. The expectations were basically what McCann had done for his entire career, although he was a more well rounded offensive player earlier on with the Braves.
McCann’s ZiPS projection was in line with his career norms. With a .245/.317/.432 triple-slash forecast and 21 home runs over 122 games, Dan Szymborski’s model foresaw the backstop accumulating 2.8 WAR. From a value standpoint, a repeat of his 2015 3.0 fWAR campaign. It was a ho-hum projection for the 32 year-old, one without any surprises. But hey, the Yankees unquestionably would have signed up for that back in March.
Through the first half of the season, it looked like McCann was going to beat expectations. In 274 plate appearances to that point, he socked 14 home runs and posted a .248/.347/.462 batting line, good for a 118 wRC+. Looking back, it’s a bit surprising that he didn’t make the All-Star team. I understand Salvador Perez starting, but he probably deserved it over one of Matt Wieters or Stephen Vogt.
At that stage of the season, nobody believed that McCann would lose his starting job. He was arguably having his best season as a Yankee and was the club’s best offensive player aside from Carlos Beltran. Yet, McCann stumbled after the All-Star break to close out July, posting a .167/.280/.238 triple-slash to round out the month.
Enter Gary Sanchez. The rookie backstop was promoted at the beginning of August, but didn’t take off until the 10th, when he went four-for-five with his first career homer in Boston. Nonetheless, McCann had lost his hold on regular catching duties before #ElGary busted out. McCann was the designated hitter in four consecutive games from August 5th through the 9th, and only started at catcher three more times the rest of the month. The combination of McCann struggling in August (71 wRC+), Sanchez being the American League’s player of the month, and Sanchez being the catcher of the future forced McCann out of the catcher role and into the designated hitter slot. Given that the Yankees sold at the deadline, reports surfaced that McCann could be the next out the door. He didn’t go anywhere, of course. Nonetheless, August was an awfully surprising turn of events. The transition to Sanchez was coming, but who knew it would happen so abruptly.
In the last month of the season, McCann started behind the plate only six more times. He primarily DH’d, and did a solid job of it, posting a 124 wRC+ over the final stretch. His full season tally: .242/.335/.413 with 20 home runs, more or less in line with ZiPS’ offensive forecast. The power was a tad less than hoped, but he made up for it with the second-highest walk-rate of his career (11.0%). His WAR suffered because of the transition to DH, ending up at 1.3. He was on track to come close to his projection, sitting pretty with 1.2 racked at the All-Star Break. However, his struggles to start the second half and move to DH hurt him from a WAR perspective.
The catcher job is Sanchez’ to lose now, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario that he would squander it. Some sort of split role between DH, backup catcher, and perhaps sparse time at first base awaits McCann in 2017 and beyond. With the Yankees, at least. He’s still under contract for $34M over the next two years. Additionally, the Yankees hold a $15M team option for 2019. That team option could become a player option, provided that McCann starts 90 games behind the plate in 2018, among other requirements. With Sanchez in tow, that’s not happening barring catastrophe. So effectively, if he stays in pinstripes, he’s here for two more years.
With a reduced role going forward, McCann will be a hot topic for this winter’s hot stove. As mentioned, there were already rumors about his departure in August that Brian Cashman acknowledged. That being said, McCann still offers value to the Yankees with his bat and could remain in the Bronx. Although he’s more valuable as a backstop, making him a worthwhile pursuit for clubs thin at catcher, the Yankees don’t have to part ways with him. Indeed, it makes sense to explore trade possibilities, but Cashman will undoubtedly weigh how losing him would hurt the offense. Sanchez’ emergence still doesn’t make this an easy call, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the organization stands pat.