DETROIT -- The Tigers will have a changing of the guard at catcher, a little sooner than expected. Detroit did not tender a contract to James McCann, making the longtime Tiger a free agent after four-plus seasons behind the plate at Comerica Park.The team also non-tendered reliever Alex Wilson, ending
DETROIT -- The Tigers will have a changing of the guard at catcher, a little sooner than expected. Detroit did not tender a contract to James McCann, making the longtime Tiger a free agent after four-plus seasons behind the plate at Comerica Park.
The team also non-tendered reliever Alex Wilson, ending his Tigers tenure after four seasons in Detroit's bullpen. Both are now free agents available to any team, including the Tigers.
Friday marked the deadline for teams to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. The Tigers' six other arbitration-eligibles -- Nicholas Castellanos, Shane Greene, Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris and Blaine Hardy -- were all retained.
The Tigers faced a decision with McCann, who was entering his second offseason of arbitration eligibility after one of his roughest seasons as a pro. While McCann took charge of the Tigers' pitching staff once again, his offensive production took a drop, including a 152-point plummet in OPS to a career-low .581 in 2018. His .220 batting average, .267 on-base percentage and .314 slugging percentage were all career lows as well, while his 26 walks and 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 among American League hitters, according to FanGraphs, ahead of Orioles slugger Chris Davis.
McCann's struggles coincided with an offseason workout routine last winter that added muscle and bulk to his frame in hopes of helping him stay strong through the grind of his season. In terms of durability, it helped; his 114 games caught and 112 starts were both career-bests, the former ranking him third among AL catchers.
McCann's 36 percent caught-stealing rate was right around his career average and ranked fourth among AL catchers. His pitch framing, however, depended on the metric. His negative-11 Framing Runs Above Average ranked 67th out of 85 Major League catchers with at least 1,000 pitches caught last season, according to StatCorner.com. By comparison, the just-released Bill James Handbook ranked McCann 13th out of 28 regular catchers in extra called strikes above expectations, putting him level with Cardinals great Yadier Molina.
Despite the defensive work, McCann's minus-0.1 Wins Above Replacement ranked last among Major League catchers with at least 450 plate appearances, according to FanGraphs. While Tigers officials could reasonably expect better from McCann in 2019, the question was whether it was worth the Tigers' while to go another year amidst a rebuild McCann wasn't going to be around to see through.
McCann avoided arbitration last offseason with a one-year, $2.375 million contract. General manager Al Avila made it clear at season's end that the rebuilding Tigers faced a tough decision on him.
"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, Detroit's top pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, has been the Tigers' regular catcher since taking over for the injured Alex Avila early in the 2015 season. Barring a surprise, next season will mark the first since 2009 that neither McCann or Avila has been the Tigers' first catcher.
Ideally, McCann would have held down the catching job until prospect Jake Rogers, a similarly defensive-minded backstop acquired from Houston in the Justin Verlander trade a year and a half ago, was ready to take over. With Rogers likely at least a year away, however, the Tigers opted not to wait, giving their two in-house candidates a chance to fill the void.
Grayson Greiner, the team's third-round Draft pick in 2014, will likely get first chance to slot into the starting role. The 26-year-old made his Major League debut early in the season and more than held his own as a late-season backup, batting .219 (21-for-96) with 12 RBIs while showing strong defensive skills.
John Hicks, who backed up McCann early last season until moving into a semi-regular role at first base filling in for injured Jose Cabrera, also will get a chance to earn playing time. He batted .260 with nine homers, 32 RBIs and a .715 OPS before core muscle surgery ended his season in August.
The Tigers will likely add a veteran free agent or two to compete for a spot, though early signings of Kurt Suzuki, Brian McCann and Jeff Mathis this month -- and the Mets' decision to tender a contract to arbitration-eligible Travis d'Arnaud -- thinned the market. Detroit won't play at the top of the market for former Dodger Yasmani Grandal, but could go for a defensive-minded catcher in the middle or lower tiers.
While McCann's future had been the subject of plenty of speculation, Wilson was a bit of a surprise coming off a bounceback season. The 32-year-old right-hander overcame early-season struggles, fueled by four home runs over his first 12 outings, to finish with a 3.36 ERA and 4.28 FIP in 59 outings, covering 61 2/3 innings. He allowed one earned runs in 12 2/3 innings over his final 14 outings, allowing seven hits while striking out 11.
Wilson's 7.3 hits allowed per nine innings marked his best rate as a Tiger. He held right-handed hitters to a .191 (25-for-131) average. But while Wilson was the reigning veteran in the Tigers bullpen in 2018, his role as a middle reliever and setup man left him vulnerable to a move if the Tigers kept Greene at closer and All-Star Joe Jimenez at setup man. Detroit made him available to clubs at the July non-waiver Trade Deadline and beyond.
Wilson made $1,925,000 this past season in his second year of arbitration, and would have been entering his final season before free agency. With the Tigers building depth in relief prospects over the last year and a half, he did not fit into Detroit's long-term plans.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.