Analysis Cubs

Cubs: The Hunt for a Back-up Option at the Catcher Position

The Cubs are in the market for a back-up catcher this off-season. Daniel Shepard writes James McCann could be the guy to fill that void.

By now, the Chicago Cubs’ offensive struggles during the second half of 2018 are no secret. Of the 13 Cubs who logged at least 100 plate appearances post-All-Star break, eight of them recorded batting averages south of .250 with back-stop Willson Contreras right in the middle of that group.

Contreras’ first half wasn’t anything like his lackluster effort down the stretch when the entire Cubs roster save for Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo fell into a slump. At 26 years of age and in just his second full season at the big league level, Contreras earned his first All-Star Game appearance with an .818 OPS and 123 wRC-plus prior to the break. Emotional as it was for the youngster, Contreras’ offensive work in the first half of 2018 mirrored the numbers posted in his short big league career.

With seven home runs and his .170 ISO before the break, Contreras seemed likely to come close to his previous career-best mark of 21 home runs set in his first full season at the major league level in 2017. Despite his solid showing that earned him a spot beside Yadier Molina in Washington, Contreras’ second half, much like the entire product fielded by the Cubs, was hard to watch.

At .200/.291/.294, Contreras’ offensive performance in the second half of 2018 did nothing to help a sinking Cubs offense that was eventually at fault for the team’s early postseason exit and Chili Davis’ departure from the club. That slash line produced just three home runs, giving Contreras 10 total on the year, or two less than the 12 he hit across 76 games during his rookie season. His .094 ISO, .264 wOBA and 62 wRC-plus helped to bring his season totals to new lows for the young catcher, making him a league average hitter after such a hot start.

Never wavering from Contreras’ game however, no matter how bad things got offensively, was his work behind the dish. Rode hard and put up wet, Contreras’ lack of success in the batter’s box could be traced, at least in part, to his overuse behind the plate. With inexperienced catcher Victor Caratini his only back-up, Contreras racked up 1,109.2 innings on defense, more than four and a half additional games worth of frames over Jonathan Lucroy who logged 1,066.1 innings at the position.

Innings caught is not the only category in which Contreras led the league. His 14.5 DEF (defensive runs above average – one of fangraphs’ defensive statistics) led all major league catchers while his 34 percent caught stealing rate was well above league average.

All told, what Contreras lacked in his bat, especially in the second half of the season, he more than made up for with his work defensively. That’s why, despite his .730 OPS, Contreras amassed a 2.6 WAR, the fourth best mark among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. Also, it was 0.3 wins higher than his rookie mark and only 0.7 wins off his 2017 pace of 3.3.

Still, despite his value defensively and room to grow as a 26-year-old who won’t be a free agent until 2023, rumors have surfaced suggesting the Cubs could move on from their All-Star back-stop.

J.T. Realmuto, the Miami Marlins’ catcher who clubbed 21 home runs and led all catchers with a 4.8 WAR in 2018 is a prime trade target this off-season. Likely not being pursued heavily by the Cubs (due to the Marlins’ high asking price, and rightfully so), it seems far-fetched that Contreras would be going anywhere this winter, or any other winter for that matter.

Instead, the Cubs have their sights set on up-grading their overall depth at the position and adding a player who can take the load off Contreras’ shoulders moving forward.

Caratini and Taylor Davis represent the only back-up options currently on the roster. The former of the two, Caratini, owns a big league OPS of just .620 across 107 games despite turning in solid numbers on the defensive side of things. For that reason, the Cubs will be and are currently in the market for a catcher this winter, one who won’t break the bank or cost a Schwarber or a Happ.

Just days removed from the non-tender deadline (the date in which clubs must offer contracts to arbitration eligible players), that pool looks like a good place to find a cheap, experienced back-up option for the next few years.

No, I am not talking Chris Herrmann (career .205 hitter), Juan Graterol (106 career at-bats) or even Caleb Joseph (.623 career OPS) as possible signings. Those names represent three of the four catchers non-tendered by their former club on Friday, making them free agents.

Instead, one name jumps off that list, a durable, veteran catcher looking for a team this off-season. His name is James McCann.

McCann Provides What the Cubs are Looking For

At just 28 years old, McCann is not slated to become a free agent until 2021. With two years of control left, adding McCann would give the Cubs a stop-gap at catcher until touted prospect Miguel Amaya finishes his progression through the minor leagues.

McCann has been around, at least in parts, since 2014 when he was a September call-up with the Detroit Tigers. In four seasons since his nine game introduction to the majors, McCann has developed into a defensive first catcher while also showing his durability behind the dish.

As one of the more demanding positions in baseball, being durable is a strong quality in a catcher and McCann does not disappoint. In what would likely be more playing time if his offensive skills were better, McCann has started 416 games in his big league career, appearing on defense only in 434 contests. In those games, McCann has racked up more than 3,600 innings behind the plate, over 1,000 more than Contreras has logged in his brief career. At .997, McCann’s fielding percentage in that time is above league average, having only committed 11 errors in better than 3,200 chances.

For perspective, across his 2,400 chances for the Cubs, Contreras has already committed 30 errors for a .988 fielding percentage. With that being said, McCann has proven his worth in more areas than fielding percentage, posting a career caught stealing rate of 37 percent, eight percent better than the American League average. In recent years, that number has actually declined slightly to 30 and 36 percent in 2017 and 2018 respectively. In McCann’s first two full seasons at the major league level, the youngster threw out better than 40 percent of runners, something Contreras has yet to do on this stage.

McCann has been able to provide defense at such a high level because he’s as durable as they come. Since 2015 and among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, McCann ranks sixth with 3,610.2 innings caught while at the same time ranking fourth with a DEF score of 41.0. The names ahead of McCann on the innings caught list? How about Molina, Realmuto, Salvador Perez, Yasmani Grandal, and Lucroy, pretty good company for a catcher to be a part of.

More recently, McCann has found his name atop those same lists, finishing sixth in innings caught this season and third in DEF with a 14.1 mark.

There is little doubt in McCann’s ability to hold down the position defensively, he has proven that over the course of his career. The question marks that do surround the free agent center on his ability to be a consistent offensive threat.

In 443 games since 2015, McCann has turned in a well-below-average offensive resume, posting an OPS-plus of just 77, or 23 percent less than average. The problem for McCann doesn’t seem to be his ability to square balls up. Over the course of his career, the back-stop has amassed a hard contact rate of 33.4 percent, better than Contreras’ 31.9 percent mark. However, McCann also sports a career strikeout rate of 24.5 percent, a number that lifted to 25.4 percent in 2018, while his walk rate suffered at just 5.7 percent.

Without the patience to walk, McCann’s OBP has struggled to crack .300, especially since he lacks a solid hit tool. For his career, McCann is a .240/.288/.366 hitter, producing a below league average OPS of .653.

Last season did nothing to better those numbers as McCann had the worst offensive year of his career. We’ve already mentioned his walk and strikeout rates, numbers that often tell the story for a player offensively and McCann is no different. His lofty strikeout rate and meager walk total culminated in a career-worse (for a full season) .267 OBP. Also career lows were McCann’s .220 batting average, .314 slugging percentage, .581 OPS, and 58 wRC-plus.

Overall, McCann’s 2018 offensive campaign was one of the worst in baseball. Among players with at least 450 plate appearances, McCann owned the second lowest wRC-plus, trailing only Chris Davis who posted a 46.

While it doesn’t look good on paper, or anywhere else for that matter, many of McCann’s lackluster numbers, like Contreras’, can be traced back to a lousy second half. Yes, McCann slashed just .228/.278/.335/.613 prior to the break, but he hit six of his eight home runs in that half of play and yielded a much lower strikeout rate of 21.5 percent. Still below league average with his 67 wRC-plus, McCann’s numbers dipped significantly post-All-Star break. He hit just .207 with a .529 OPS, logging a 43 wRC-plus and striking out at a 31.8 percent clip.

Looking at McCann’s numbers in 2018 may make many not want his services. However, as recently as 2017, McCann was an average offensive player, posting a 94 OPS-plus with 13 home runs and a .733 OPS. That type of production, while absent in 2018, makes McCann someone to take a flyer on this off-season. With his outstanding work behind the dish and the fact he’s projected to make just $3.5 million in arbitration this winter, the Cubs would be foolish not to consider McCann an option for the back-up gig.

McCann checks all the boxes the Cubs are looking for in a back-up this off-season. A durable catcher who can produce just enough offensively so they can rest Contreras once or twice a week, decreasing the stress on his body.

What the Cubs would give up on the offensive side would likely be made up for by Contreras’ increased production as a fresher version of himself. We saw what Contreras can do when he has his legs under him, just look at his first half of 2018. With a solid back-up behind him, imagine what he could do over the course of a full season.

Adding McCann to the mix would be a huge step in getting Contreras back on the right track for 2019 and beyond. However, that’s only one of the first steps that should be taken by Theo Epstein and the front office this winter.

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