DETROIT — Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is being cautious with Alex Avila, who missed his third game Friday for lingering symptoms after being hit on the mask by a foul ball on Tuesday. He's being equally careful with starting James McCann behind the plate for Detroit.
McCann has been with the Tigers for five days but he's only caught pitchers on two occasions, and only in late game situations. With very little major league experience under his belt — he's caught only one inning and has one at-bat — Ausmus isn't ready to throw McCann behind the dish just yet.
"I'm not concerned about him being overwhelmed at the plate," Ausmus said. "Don't get me wrong, I think he can handle it, he'll be able to handle it. But to throw him behind the plate on a daily basis I think would be a bit much to ask of him."
In the middle of a pennant race, not overwhelming McCann is key, who's experiencing the big leagues for the first time for only a limited time period. It's a point that Ausmus has reiterated with resounding consistency. So would McCann have an advantage by catching former Mud Hens teammate, Kyle Lobstein, who starts on Sunday? It's possible, but it's not a guarantee.
"I will say this, I think we have a pitching staff, outside of Lobstein, that generally has a pretty good idea of what they want to do and have the ability to call their own games," Ausmus said. "That actually would help McCann as well. Him catching Lobstein and being familiar with him wouldn't hurt, but I don't know that he would gain that much over say, catching a Scherzer."
Backup catcher Bryan Holaday isn't overly experienced at the major league level, but he's caught the Tigers' pitching staff all season and from time-to-time in the last two years, which is why he's getting the playing time over McCann right now. The Tigers want to start McCann, but they want to do it the right way and that means not tossing him in before he has some knowledge of the league. Of course, if Avila remains out of the lineup any longer, Ausmus may have no choice but to rest Holaday and give McCann at least one start.
"Let's not lose focus here, Triple-A to the big leagues is a big jump," Ausmus said. "And it's an even bigger jump when you have to handle an entirely new staff against an entirely new league of hitters, with all new scouting reports. It's not like we're taking a left fielder and just sticking him out in left field and saying, catch the ball and hit."
With only three weeks left in the regular season, McCann doesn't have that long to get at least moderately acclimated. It doesn't mean McCann won't get playing time, but ideally Ausmus would like McCann to acclimate to the pitchers and opposing hitters before allowing McCann to call an entire game. Right now that means catching during bullpen sessions before games and being present for all scouting report meetings.
"The catcher can have a much larger impact on a game and a season on the defensive side of the ball than he can or will generally on the offensive side of the ball," Ausmus said.
Ausmus also wants to avoid creating a situation that would cause McCann's hitting to suffer, as a result of placing such a focus on defensive adjustments. McCann doesn't hit right-handed hitters with any spectacular fashion (.276), but against lefties he does damage (.342), which is something that the Tigers need in their lineup.
"I've always said that the cruel irony for a catcher is when you finally figure out what you're doing behind the plate, your physical skills start eroding and you can't really hit anymore," Ausmus said. "I hope that doesn't happen to him."
If Avila does return to the lineup on Saturday, don't hold your breath waiting to see McCann's name penciled in for the game's next start. There isn't a timetable for when Ausmus plans on starting the defensively talented catcher on a regular basis, much to the displeasure of those who have been wanting to see McCann in action for some time.
However, if Avila isn't ready for duty on Saturday, Ausmus may have no other choice but to start McCann.
"Don't write him off. I think McCann is an intelligent catcher who takes a lot of pride in his defense and I think we can certainly help him make the transition. When I say don't write him off, don't write him off as not playing because especially if Alex needs more time, then McCann's going to play because we can't just put Bryan Holaday out there every single day, day game after a night game."