Around the Horn: Catchers
Seeking improvement behind plate, Yankees splurge on All-Star McCann
With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com will go around the horn to break down each area of the New York Yankees' roster, beginning with this look behind the plate.
The first seeds of what would grow into a drastic half-billion dollar makeover of the Yankees' roster were planted in November, when club officials invited Brian McCann and his wife, Ashley, to visit New York, giving a tour of Yankee Stadium and sitting down for a dinner that stretched late into the evening.
A seven-time All-Star, McCann was fairly certain that his time with the Braves had concluded and that he was beginning the next phase of his career. The more the Yanks spoke, the more McCann grew excited about the idea of wearing pinstripes, and he jumped at the opportunity to sign a five-year, $85 million deal just before Thanksgiving.
"From the outside looking in, you don't know what to expect," McCann said in December when the deal was officially announced. "You just know it's a winning organization with tradition. But when I got to meet the people behind that, it was a big reason why I wanted to be here, to be part of this process.
"I went to dinner with them, it turned into a three-hour dinner. We got to talk a lot, they got to know who I was as a person and I got to know them. It was a perfect match, a perfect fit."
McCann's deal, the largest given to a free-agent catcher, includes a vesting option for the 2019 season as well as a full no-trade clause. The Yankees did not blink at that, knowing that McCann was their best choice to upgrade a position that cried out for improvement.
"He's an offensive catcher that has the ability to really work a pitching staff," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's a complete catcher. He's a middle-of-the-order hitter that has power where this ballpark should play really well. And he brings that intensity and leadership qualities that you're looking for in a catcher behind the plate."
New York struggled to find offensive production from its backstops in 2013. Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine headlined a group of defense-first catchers who produced an overall line of .213/.289/.298, with a Major League-low eight home runs and 43 RBIs. McCann, who turns 30 in February, promises to restore punch to the position.
A five-time Silver Slugger winner, the left-handed hitter has belted at least 20 home runs in each of the last six seasons, batting .256 with 20 home runs, 57 RBIs and a .796 OPS last year despite missing the first five weeks of the season while rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn right labrum. It seems a safe bet that Yankee Stadium's friendly right-field porch will help inflate McCann's production.
"If you look at my career, a lot of my fly balls go to right-center field; sometimes down the left-field line," McCann said. "But the majority of my home runs go to right field. In Atlanta, you sometimes have to pick your count and kind of cheat to hit a home run. It's going to make me a better all-around hitter."
McCann has caught 24 percent of runners stealing over his nine seasons, and fans should appreciate the veteran's on-field leadership, which carries a whiff of Jorge Posada's emotional demeanor. McCann appeared on the highlights last year after barking at the Brewers' Carlos Gomez and the Marlins' Jose Fernandez for what he viewed as disrespectful "showing up" of his team.
"My instincts took over," McCann said. "Anybody in any line of work, if someone is going to be yelling at you, it's a natural reaction to not let that happen."
As McCann prepares to enter his first spring with the Yanks, he will need to study a new pitching staff and absorb the intricacies of the American League's lineups. McCann will also be trusted with the responsibility of guiding Masahiro Tanaka's first pitches from a Major League mound.
"I want to pick the brains of the pitchers, what they like to do in certain situations," McCann said. "My job is to mix and match what they like to do with what the hitters' weaknesses are; know who likes to swing early in counts and who doesn't, things like that. It's not going to be a problem. We're all veterans, and when you put veterans together, it goes pretty smoothly."
"This is not a young catcher," Girardi added. "This is a guy who has had to deal with Interleague Play and quickly study hitters. And I think he understands how to do it, and has a good method of doing it. I don't think that will be a huge problem for him."
The Yankees will hold a competition in Spring Training to determine McCann's backup. Stewart was traded to the Pirates in December, making Cervelli an early front-runner for the job. Cervelli missed a terrific opportunity for playing time last year, as his season was cut short by a fractured right hand in an April 26 game against the Blue Jays.
Cervelli then had a setback in his rehab from the injury before accepting a 50-game suspension stemming from Major League Baseball's Biogenesis investigation. A lifetime .271 hitter in 201 big league games, he agreed to a one-year, $700,000 contract this month, avoiding arbitration.
Cervelli's main competition this spring figures to be the 25-year-old Romine, who batted .207 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 60 games for New York last season. Romine's case could be impacted by the fact that Cervelli is out of Minor League options and cannot be sent down without being exposed to waivers.
The Yanks also will look at J.R. Murphy, who made it into 16 games last year, including becoming the answer to a trivia question by catching Mariano Rivera's final appearance. The 22-year-old Murphy appears ticketed to begin the year Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.