DETROIT -- Tigers officials returned from Thanksgiving weekend with the Hot Stove market just beginning to warm up. They also headed back to work staring back at the catching conundrum that has been looming since at least September.
The Tigers have had a remarkable run of stability behind the plate this decade between Alex Avila and James McCann. As Christmas shoppers move past the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, the Tigers have this week to decide whether to stick with McCann for another year.
Friday night marks the deadline for teams to tender contracts to players on 40-man rosters or cut them loose to become free agents. The non-tender date has become one of two decision days for many clubs with arbitration-eligible players, the other being the date to add Rule 5 eligible prospects to rosters.
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The Tigers, in the midst of their rebuilding project, have one of their larger crops of arbitration-eligible players this offseason, with eight players due up -- including four of their top seven returning players in terms of Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.
McCann was not one of those four, having registered a minus-0.5 bWAR in 2018, which -- along with the aforementioned youth movement -- explains partly why he could end up being the one notable move. It's enough of a consideration that general manager Al Avila openly acknowledged the issue in his end-of-season remarks to beat reporters two months ago.
"He's one guy that we have to look at," Avila said at the time, "and determine, do we bring him back or not?"
McCann took over primary catching duties in 2015 after injuries sidelined Avila. He immediately established himself as a defensive strength behind the plate, throwing out would-be basestealers at 41- and 45-percent rates his first two full seasons and a 37-percent rate for his career. His offense, however, has been far less consistent, and not as proficient.
What was hoped to be a 2018 emergence for McCann, coming off a strong second half to '17, instead became the roughest campaign of his career. His .581 OPS marked a 152-point drop from 2017. It also marked a career low, along with his .220 batting average, .267 OBP and .314 slugging percentage. His 26 walks compared with 116 strikeouts resulted in the ninth-lowest walk-to-strikeout ratio among American League hitters with at least 450 plate appearances. His 32 Weighted Runs Created ranked second-lowest in the league, according to FanGraphs, ahead of Orioles slugger Chris Davis.
Those struggles followed an offseason in which McCann added strength and bulk to his 6-foot-3 frame.
"Obviously he struggled a little bit this year with the bat," Avila said in September, "but he's a veteran guy, he handles the pitching staff great and he's been durable. Obviously, we wish that he could hit a little bit more. I think that there's still something in there. I think there's more potential in there, but he's getting to that point now, getting close to free agency and starting to make a little bit more money so we have to make a tough decision on him."
McCann signed for $2.375 million last winter in his first year of arbitration-eligibility, forgoing a potential hearing. The 28-year-old has two more seasons before he's eligible for free agency. By that point, the Tigers expect to have a new starting catcher in Jake Rogers, a similar defense-first backstop acquired from the Astros in the Justin Verlander trade.
Even if Rogers is the Tigers' catcher of the future, possibly by the end of 2019, somebody has to catch for the Tigers in the present. Detroit has another young catcher in Grayson Greiner, who made his big league debut in May and held his own over four months in a backup role. Yet the 26-year-old also has offensive questions after a .248 average and .697 OPS over five Minor League seasons.
Greiner went to the Dominican League for winter ball to work on his game, but a batting practice injury resulted in surgery to remove a bone chip from his right wrist. He's expected to be ready for Spring Training.
In terms of catchers with offensive punch, the Tigers have John Hicks coming off a .260 average and .715 OPS in a combination role as McCann's backup and Jose Cabrera's fill-in at first base. But Hicks, too, is coming back from surgery to repair a core muscle defect.
The Tigers could also look outside the system for a placeholder at catcher, either to start or platoon with Greiner and/or Hicks. But catching has been one of the few areas of the free-agent market to move early; Kurt Suzuki, Jeff Mathis and Brian McCann have all signed deals this month, including two-year deals for Suzuki and Mathis.
If Detroit holds onto McCann, it might well be for the flexibility of a one-year contract to go with his familiarity with the pitching staff. If the Tigers non-tender McCann instead, it'll leave them with potentially their first bout of uncertainty behind the plate in almost a decade, at least until Rogers arrives.