The Mets have been in search of a long-term catcher since Citi Field’s inaugural season. Since the ballpark opened, the only Mets catcher to play 100-plus games more than once was Josh Thole—he played in 102 games in 2011 and 100 in 2012—and the position has essentially been a revolving door, save for an extended but injury-plagued run by Travis d’Arnaud. Wilson Ramos manned the position the past two years, and his 124 games in 2019 was the most by a Mets backstop since the Mike Piazza days. However, while he put up respectable offensive numbers in 2019, he came crashing back to earth in 2020.
With Ramos hitting free agency after the team declined his option for 2021, the front office made acquiring a catcher a top priority. They came away with the second-best option on the market, bypassing the talented but expensive J.T. Realmuto in favor of the more cost-effective James McCann, whose star has been on the rise. The Mets were looking for an offensive boost at the position after their catching core posted an 87 wRC+ (14th in MLB) and a 0.7 fWAR (21st) in 2019, followed by an 87 wRC+ (16th) and a 0.1 fWAR (21st) in 2020. But they were looking more so for a defensive upgrade after Ramos put up a -8.6 Catching Defensive Adjustment (CDA) in 2019 and -0.6 CDA in 2020, along with a -6.7 Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) in 2019 and a -.004 Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA) in 2019 and -.001 CSAA in 2020. More than just the numbers, rumors circulated that some pitchers weren’t happy pitching to Ramos, specifically Noah Syndergaard.
Enter McCann, who signed a four-year deal worth $40.6 million and will start, with Tomás Nido serving as the primary backup.
Your feelings on the McCann signing will heavily depend on whether you think the progress he made with the White Sox is legitimate. While some may be understandably skeptical, it’s not unheard of for catchers to hit their peak in their 30s, which is what the Mets had to have been hoping when they inked him to that contract. In parts of five seasons with the Tigers, McCann hit .240/.288/.366 with a 75 wRC+ and a -0.2 fWAR in 442 games before he was unceremoniously non-tendered after the 2018 season. With the White Sox, he improved his numbers to .276/.334/.474 with a 115 wRC+ and a 3.7 fWAR in 146 games.
On top of his offense, he has made great defensive strides as of late, especially with respect to framing. Whether you look at Baseball Prospectus metrics like CDA, FRAA, or CSAA, or whether you’re using stats like Statcast’s Runs From Extra Strikes, McCann posted his best defensive numbers across the board in 2020 after falling anywhere from the middle of the pack to the bottom of the league in previous years. This can be attributed to his extensive work with Jerry Narron, and McCann noted during his press conference that he’ll continue working with him, as I mentioned in our preview of McCann’s 2021 season.
Your belief in McCann having solved his defensive woes depends heavily on whether you choose to trust statistics from a 60-game season. As David Capobianco visualized in his analysis earlier in the offseason, there’s reason to be optimistic that the positive changes should carry into his Mets’ tenure, which is good news. Steamer and ZiPS both see McCann regressing from his career-best output in 2019 and 2020, though he should still be a serviceable catcher. Steamer is a bit more pessimistic, showing McCann finishing with a .677 OPS, an 80 wRC+, and a 1.0 fWAR, while ZiPS is a bit kinder to him with a .687 OPS, an 83 wRC+, and a 1.2 fWAR. The 30-year-old will slot into the eighth spot in the team’s lineup. The club will need him to play around 120 games, which would surpass his career high of 118 games in 2018 and in 2019, because the options behind McCann do not instill a lot of confidence.
Speaking of small sample sizes, Nido was well on his way to his best offensive season before a COVID-19 diagnosis in August cut his season short. Entering 2020, he owned a career slash line of .187/.222/.291 with five home runs and a 36 wRC+ and a -0.7 fWAR in 230 at-bats stretched over three season. In 24 at-bats over seven games last year, he hit .292/.346/.583 with two home runs, a 149 wRC+ and a career-best 0.3 fWAR. He finished with a 44.4 HardHit% after posting a 30.0 HardHit% in 2019, and he put up a career-best 7.7% BB% and 23.1% K%.
So is Nido suddenly an above-average hitter? Probably not, at least based on just what we saw in 2020, something that Christian Romo touched on in his season preview. But if he can at least be the hitter the team saw last year during any portion of this season, then you can live with putting his bat in there when McCann needs a breather. His defense has always been his best asset, so that is at least something the team won’t have to think about that on days that he starts. He finished 2019 with a 5.1 CDA and 5.1 FRAA (19th-best among 123 MLB catchers) and a .015 CSAA (12th), and he continued his plus defense in 2020 with a 0.9 CDA (25th out of 99 MLB catchers) and a .013 CSAA (4th).
Behind McCann and Nido, the options are fairly limited. Ali Sanchez, who played a few games for the club last season, was designated for assignment in February and traded to the Cardinals two days later. Robinson Chirinos has moved on to the other New York team, and the ever-present Rene Rivera is no longer with the club, although he is still an available free agent.
Steve Sypa already asked (and answered) the question of whether Mazeika being third on the team’s catching depth chart is a good thing. He’s a decent bat with a not-so-decent glove, but he is the first line of defense in case of any injury to McCann or Nido. If you’ve caught him playing this spring, you’ve likely seen as much of him at first base as you have seen of him behind the plate. The hope is that the team can avoid any major injury, but if they do, Mazeika will be the first call, especially since he is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster at this time.
The Mets signed Joseph at the very start of the spring, and he will likely serve as the backup catcher in Syracuse for the season. The 34-year-old backstop is a long way removed from his firs two seasons with the Orioles, which were his best (1.8 fWAR in 2014, 2.1 fWAR in 2015). He’s put up a 0.1 fWAR over his last five seasons, and he bounced around to Arizona and to Toronto his last two years. He’s mostly just an insurance policy, and it never hurts to have a catcher available with some major league experience, something Mazeika doesn’t have. Still, if Joseph has any significant playing time with the Mets this year, then something has almost certainly gone wrong.
If you weren’t paying close attention to last year’s MLB season, you might’ve even missed the Mets picking up Maxwell in July as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option behind the plate. He never got a chance with the club in 2020, and in general, the first-baseman-turned-catcher hasn’t played a major league game since 2018. The former second round pick was invited to spring training with the club this year, and he was reassigned on March 24. He’s another player who likely won’t see playing time with the club in 2021, but it’s good to have someone with experience available, just in case.
As recently as March 19, the Mets have been reportedly considering other catching options, with the team rumored to be interested in Tyler Flowers as a possibility. There hasn’t appeared to be any traction on that, but the team’s depth beyond their two main starters is thin. Should any injury befall McCann or Nido, the team will have a tough time filling the spot. But if the Mets are seriously looking for someone else to bring in on short notice, there is always Rivera.