Zack attack: For Collins, even in a limited platoon role, the time is now. (Tom Borowski/South Side Hit Pen)
James McCann was a bit of a renaissance man for the 2019 Chicago White Sox. Signed as an afterthought for $2 million in advance of another rebuilding season, not much was expected of the former Tigers’ backstop. But all the 6´3´´, 225-pounder proceeded to do was post a 2.3 fWAR season and play in his first All-Star Game. McCann hit .273/.328/.460 with a 109 wRC+ and smacked 18 homers in 118 contests.
McCann was especially good against southpaws last year, posting a stellar wRC+ of 132. The catcher’s .197 ISO was staggering, and contributed a great deal to his career-best campaign. The former second round pick handled his business positively in Chicago and was well-regarded in a leadership role, to the extent that starting pitcher Lucas Giolito credited his new teammate with much of his success in 2019.
Pitch framing is a weakness for McCann, and defense overall isn’t considered to be a strong suit of his. He’s a respected game-caller and adept at throwing out runners while being very studious regarding the planning and preparation that goes into being a catcher.
The second half of 2019 was rough for McCann, and he was much better vs lefties overall. Against righties in 2019, James posted a league-average mark of 100 with his wRC+ and he posted a .319 wOBA. In an ideal situation, McCann would face primarily southpaws in 2020.
The decision-makers in the front office made a concerted effort this offseason to add talent to the roster for the 2020 season. The rebuild is over, and it’s time to compete for a Central Division title. José Abreu is slated to return to the south side for his seventh season in black and white. Abreu has hit 179 career homers and has always been very successful against left-handed pitching in general.
Abreu signed a three-year contract extension with the White Sox worth $50 million in late November. The deal was met with some consternation due to the anticipated regression of the player, in spite of his gaudy home run and RBI totals in 2019. The soon-to-be 33-year-old Cuban has regressed, and will likely continue to do so. That regression will occur in a comfortable place, though, and hitting southpaws is still something that should be a primary focus.
Playing in 159 games last year, Abreu posted a 117 wRC+ even though his strikeout rate increased and his walk rate keeps falling. The first baseman was a league average offensive performer (100 wRC+) vs righties, and some scheduled days off in the future could best serve all parties. Abreu must be in the lineup vs lefties, however. In 2019, he murdered lefthanders to the tune of a .360/.418/.591 slash line with a 168 wRC+ and 24 homers.
Yasmani Grandal was given the largest free agent contract in the history of the organization back in November as well. The former first-rounder out of Miami is one of the best catchers in baseball. The switch-hitter played in 153 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019, and hit .246/.380/.468 with 28 homers. Yaz posted a 121 wRC+ with a 17% walk rate as well. The 31-year-old was exceptional against lefties, though. While Grandal posted very strong numbers against right-handed pitching (114 wRC+), he was even better (138 wRC+) when he turned around and hit from the right side.
With Grandal as the biggest outside addition to the club, playing time didn’t appear to be an issue for James McCann. His numbers against lefties indicated a role could be carved out in which he split some time at designated hitter in addition to catcher with the newly acquired Grandal. But then …
The White Sox signed 37-year-old slugger Edwin Encarnación in early January. The deal is for one year with a club option for 2021, and the move further signifies a win-now attitude. Encarnación is primarily a designated hitter at this stage of his career, but he could do some moonlighting at first base. In 109 games with the Yankees and Mariners in 2019, he clubbed .244/.344/.531 with 34 home runs while posting a 129 wRC+ and .362 wOBA.
Encarnación has 414 career homers, and the long ball is still a primary focus of his offensive profile. Edwin walked at a 12% clip last year, and while he posted a strong 121 wRC+ vs right handed pitching, he was death to lefties. The slugger hit .245/.375/.594 (.969 OPS) with a .396 wOBA vs southpaws. Encarnación posted a 152 wRC+ vs lefties in 2019. He was signed to play, and he should be in the lineup almost every day. Days off could come against tough righties, but it’s imperative that EE be available to mash against most pitchers.
Zack Collins … left out?
Another name in the 26-man roster mix for the White Sox is former top draft pick Zack Collins. Collins has many detractors, and his style of play wouldn’t be described as aesthetically pleasing — he was billed as a three-true-outcomes performer with defensive questions, after all. He can also play some first base and designated hitter, and has struggled vs lefties throughout his minor league career.
Collins will be 25 years old in February and has nothing to prove at the minor league level. Last year with the Charlotte Knights, the lefty slugger batted .282/.403/.548 with a 140 wRC+ in 88 games. Zack hit 19 homers and posted a .401 wOBA. He possesses plus raw power and plate discipline, and has displayed it across every minor league level: In 2017 at Winston-Salem, Collins posted a 130 wRC+. With the Birmingham Barons in 2018, his wRC+ was 130 in one of the strongest leagues in the minors.
Collins struggled in a small major league sample in 2019 when playing time was quite sparse. In 102 trips to the plate, he posted a 77 wRC+ over the course of 27 games. He showed off some of the plus power to go with a 14% walk rate and a .219 ISO. Collins’ eventual role in the big leagues might be as a part-time player, one who walks and hits for power against right-handed pitching.
Collins vs. McCann
It shouldn’t be a big surprise that McCann’s good name has come up frequently in trade rumors this offseason. He’s a functional piece on a roster, and perfectly suited to be a member of a catching platoon. He no longer fits ideally on the White Sox roster, however. McCann is locked in for 2020 at $5.4 million, which looks tenable on the surface but could make him a difficult trade piece due to his shortcomings. What the White Sox would even look for as a trade return is very debatable.
It will likely be seen as heresy to suggest that Collins fits more appropriately on a winning roster than McCann in this particular case, but orthodoxy should be challenged this time around. McCann would benefit from playing against left-handed pitchers most often, but it’s tough to justify ceding playing time to him at the expense of Encarnación, Abreu and Grandal. That trio of mashers shouldn’t be sitting against lefties just so McCann can see more time.
Collins on the other hand, could serve a purpose and fill an actual need. If proven that he’s playable behind the dish, his left-handed bat could be a benefit for the club. On days when Collins catches, Grandal could stay in the lineup with one of Abreu or Encarnación sitting against a right-handed starter. On the other hand McCann is a solid all-around player, and he needs time as a regular in advance of his first foray into real free agency after this season.
The White Sox may choose to keep all three players, especially with the new roster rules in place that make keeping three catchers much easier. Injuries occur, but with McCann on a one-year deal with a role that’s rendered him superfluous, a trade to a better situation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone in the near future.
McCann is a professional and would likely accept any role provided to him, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s not thrilled with the situation. McCann is no longer scheduled to attend SoxFest this upcoming weekend, and he will likely be involved in trade rumors for catching needy teams into spring training.