With James McCann a free agent this winter the White Sox will be looking to fill his spot on the open market.
A return in 2021 hasn’t been ruled out by either side and — as you’ll see below — McCann’s market value being negatively impacted by forecasted COVID-19 financial constraints across the league might make one more year on the Southside a realistic option.
The backup catcher spot won’t be a top priority for the White Sox, who desperately need another starting pitcher and a right-fielder, but the organization just doesn’t seem content with handing the job off to former first-rounder Zack Collins just yet.
Here are five free agents that the White Sox could pursue this winter.
The first, and probably the best option for the White Sox’s backup catcher need, is unfortunately the least likely scenario. After spending two years with the White Sox, McCann is an unrestricted free agent and is the second-best catcher available on the market behind J.T. Realmuto.
With Realmuto expected to garner a big-money, long-term contract offer from multiple teams this winter, McCann’s market will be interesting to watch unfold. FanGraphs has McCann’s market value shaping up like this:
McCann had a $5.4MM price tag with the White Sox in 2020, and if his projected AAV is in the $6-7MM ballpark that FanGraphs is projecting, it makes sense for the White Sox to bring the veteran catcher back at what would be a minimal raise compared to his 2020 salary.
McCann, 30, posted a strong 1.5 fWAR for the White Sox in 2020, playing in 31 of the team’s 60 games, even in a “backup” role behind Yasmani Grandal. McCann saw time behind the plate and in the DH role.
Despite his market value projections by FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors (MLBTR projects McCann to sign with Philadelphia for two-years, $20MM/$10MM AAV), I think that McCann is going to be looking for a place where he can be the primary catcher, rather than working behind a catcher of Yasmani Grandal’s caliber again.
But, if McCann thinks he can increase his market value and long-term prospects during the 2021 season, a return to the White Sox on a one-year deal worth $7-10MM wouldn’t be a bad situation for either side.
At 38-years-old Molina is the seasoned veteran that could be the perfect fit here for the White Sox if James McCann gets the long-term deal he deserves elsewhere.
Molina is still productive and durable enough at his advanced age (0.5 fWAR in 42 games in 2020) to play 1-2 games a week for the White Sox behind the plate, and maybe even spend some time at DH if the club opts not to thrust top-prospect Andrew Vaughn into a full-time role without having played any minor league baseball in 2020.
We can safely predict that Vaughn — even if he ends up being the primary DH in 2021 — won’t start the season with the major league team due to service time manipulation that has simply become the norm across baseball.
Would Molina leave St. Louis? Well, if he did consider leaving St. Louis, I’d imagine that coming to the White Sox to play for Tony La Russa — with whom Molina spent his first eight MLB seasons playing under, including two World Series championship seasons in 2006, 2011 — makes sense. With a shot at his third World Series ring before he inevitably calls it quits on his Hall of Fame career, it must be an attractive opportunity.
Molina can come to the White Sox and help La Russa create a relationship with the young White Sox core, help in the development of the young pitching staff, and spell Yasmani Grandal behind the plate when needed.
FanGraphs has Molina at No. 31 on their Top-50 list when it comes to free agents, with a projected AAV of roughly $12MM. MLBTR has Molina at No. 32 on their list with a projected AAV of $10MM and Spotrac has the veteran backstop at $9.2MM in that department. A one-year, $9-12MM deal might be more than Chicago is looking to dedicate to that need, but if Tony La Russa is insistent on Molina, maybe Jerry will throw a few more bucks at Molina than they would have otherwise.
Tyler Flowers was at one time supposed to be the future behind the plate for the White Sox, but it just never worked while he was in town. However, Flowers has put together a decent resume since leaving Chicago after the 2015 season.
In his five seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Flowers compiled a combined 12.0 fWAR over the course of 371 games. Flowers will turn 35-years-old before the 2021 season begins, and made $4MM with Atlanta in 2020, so he’ll likely command an AAV somewhere in the ballpark of $4-7MM. Flowers isn’t the flashiest name out there, but we’re talking about a backup role after all.
If the White Sox opted not to go the route of either retaining James McCann or pursuing Yadier Molina I would be happy with Flowers returning to the Southside on a 1-2 year deal worth roughly $5.5MM per year.
After the Tampa Bay Rays declined Mike Zunino’s $4.5MM 2021 option last week the catching pool became a bit more intriguing this winter.
Zunino hit just .147 in 28 regular-season games for the Rays during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign, but his resume as a whole paints a much more enticing picture. The third-overall selection by the Seattle Mariners in the 2012 MLB Draft has a lifetime batting average of just .200, yet he has three 20-plus home run seasons, and sits at 108 career home runs in 705 games.
At this point, Zunino is a low-OBP, right-handed hitting catcher who has the power to hit homers in bunches, and that’s a profile that works fine for a backup catcher at a reasonable cost.
Zunino’s offensive profile doesn’t really excite me as much as it does others, but I won’t complain about a cheap one-year deal for the former top draft pick. Maybe he can rebuild his value some before he hits the open market again in 2021, leading up to his age-31 season.
This is where the catching market really craters out, so we’ll wrap-up this exercise in potential fits with Jason Castro.
Jason Castro, another one-time first-round pick in the MLB Draft (2008 – R1, P10 – HOU) is looking for a new job after a down season. Castro played in just 27 games and slashed .188/.293/.375 with two home runs and an 86 wRC+ mark with the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres. Castro’s 2020 salary was $6.85MM, but he’s not likely to see that number this winter after his production and usage has continued to decline.
Castro is a veteran catcher with postseason experience, a respectable resume despite the decline in production. He could see 1-2 games a week behind the dish in place of Grandal if the White Sox are determined to fill this need without spending much money.
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