The catcher position is one of the most demanding in all of sports, both mentally and physically. We have seen the toll that the daily grind has taken on Alex Avila over the past few years, leading some to wonder if he should even be playing baseball in 2015. Catchers have to be mentally strong as well, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of every pitcher on their staff and every hitter they are going to face. Defensive skills like game calling and pitch framing are difficult to measure, but are believed to be much more valuable than a solid offensive profile.
James McCann fits this description to a tee. Tigers fans have fixated on his gaudy offensive numbers against left-handed pitching, and for good reason. He looks to be a perfect platoon partner for Avila in 2015. However, McCann's calling card is his defense. A strong defender with a borderline plus arm, McCann's bat finally caught up with the defensive profile in 2014. An impressive showing at Triple-A Toledo has him knocking on the door for significant playing time at the MLB level next season, and his high floor -- he's arguably the surest bet in the entire farm system -- won him the #2 spot in our 2015 rankings.
At six feet, two inches tall and weighing 210 pounds, McCann has the prototypical build for an MLB catcher. He was drafted by the Tigers in the second round of the 2011 draft, their top selection that year. He only appeared in 14 games after signing in mid-August, but earned an aggressive placement to Advanced-A Lakeland in 2012. McCann hit .288/.345/.350 with 10 doubles in 177 plate appearances for the Flying Tigers, but he did not homer. He earned a mid-season promotion to Double-A Erie where he hit .200/.227/.282 in 64 games.
McCann started the 2013 season back at Erie, but the added experience made a big difference. He hit .277/.328/.404 with 39 extra base hits in 486 plate appearances this time around. He moved up to Triple-A Toledo in 2014 and had his best offensive season yet, hitting .295/.343/.427 with seven home runs and 54 RBI. McCann also backed up his solid reputation as a defender by throwing out 42 percent of baserunners in 92 attempts. He earned a call-up to the majors in September and picked up three hits in 12 at-bats.
McCann already has the defensive chops to be an MLB catcher. He shows above average defensive abilities across the board, from arm strengths to pop times to game calling skills. Brad Ausmus may have been wary of McCann's ability to handle the major league staff in September, but he is a better defender than Bryan Holaday and will only represent a modest drop-off from Alex Avila when McCann is in the lineup. These reviews have come from just about everywhere, too. John Sickels of Minor League Ball called him an "excellent defensive catcher" and ranked him 11th in the Tigers' system prior to the 2014 season.
There aren't may ways to accurately assess a catcher's defensive abilities with statistics, particularly at the minor league level. However, McCann has thrown out 41 percent of baserunners in his minor league career, a solid figure in any league. He does a good job of getting the ball out of his glove quickly, and has above average arm strength.
McCann has also shown improvements in his offensive abilities since being drafted. He hits left-handed pitching very well, including an .865 OPS against southpaws last season. He has a .767 OPS against left-handers in his minor league career, in part thanks to an excellent 9.3 percent walk rate. Jordan touched on McCann's offensive abilities in last year's rankings, when McCann was the #7 prospect in the system.
At the plate, McCann is ever improving. I saw him take four PA against LHP in the same game, and he hit four absolute ropes. He stays balanced and gets his front foot down in time, which is extremely important, as I've harped on before. I don't see him as a huge power guy, but a catcher with a 50 hit tool and playable power is definitely an asset, especially if it's against opposite side pitching at the beginning of his career.
McCann has shown some decent contact skills throughout his minor league career, but he doesn't project to have much power in his MLB career. He only has 18 home runs in three-plus minor league seasons, and he doesn't project to add much weight onto an already sturdy frame. McCann's swing is tailored more towards becoming a line drive hitter with solid gap power, which can play well in the spacious parks of the AL Central. He also doesn't pull the ball very often in the air, which will make it even more difficult for him to drive the ball out of the park. Even if he becomes a full-time MLB starter, he probably won't have more than a few seasons with 10-12 home runs.
In addition to the power, McCann's ability to hit right-handed pitching will be a determining factor in how much playing time he gets at the MLB level. He has hit .262/.300/.365 with 207 strikeouts in 1005 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers in his minor league career. That .665 OPS pales in comparison to his .767 OPS against left-handers. He was better in 2014 at .276/.316/.405, but he still struggled to hit pitches that run inside on him. His pitch recognition against righties also needs work; McCann has a Steven Moya-esque 3.9 percent walk rate against right-handed pitchers in his minor league career.
Any compliments of McCann's foot speed or baserunning ability will immediately be followed by the phrase "for a catcher." While he does indeed run well for a catcher, McCann is a below average runner overall. He is faster than Avila or Victor Martinez, but likely won't steal more than a handful of bases at the MLB level in his career. Scouting reports indicate that he has good instincts while on the basepaths, but I would be surprised if he's ever anything more than your typical station-to-station runner.
Video via Walt Hilsenbeck and MLB Farm
Projected team: Detroit Tigers
While it seemed Brad Ausmus was hesitant to use McCann in September, it appears that he will be one of the Tigers' two catchers in 2015. The Tigers have already indicated that they are willing to let McCann eat into Alex Avila's plate appearances, and McCann appears to be the favorite to take over the starting job in 2016. The numbers suggest that a strict platoon would be appropriate for the two in 2015, but the Tigers haven't been so great about maintaining those roles in the past. McCann's glove is already good enough to ensure he can be a solid backup at the MLB level, but his bat will determine if he can maintain a starting job in his career.
New addition: Drew VerHagen, right-handed pitcher
As yet another big right-handed starter from the SEC, VerHagen is the blueprint for what the Tigers look for on draft day. They selected him out of Vanderbilt with the 154th overall pick in the 2012 draft, and he worked quickly through the lower levels of the system. VerHagen spent most of 2014 at Triple-A Toledo, where he allowed a 3.67 ERA and 3.70 FIP in 110 1/3 innings. He made his MLB debut as well, allowing three runs in five innings against the Cleveland Indians. His season was cut short by a stress fracture in his lower back, and he should split time between Toledo and Detroit again in 2015. Baseball Prospectus ranked VerHagen the seventh-best prospect in the system prior to the 2014 season.