The timing of it all was complicated, with the holidays upon him and he and his wife preparing to move. But as James McCann digested the trade that sent him from the New York Mets to become the Orioles’ backup catcher in Baltimore, his excitement steadily mounted.
He doesn’t know how much he’ll play. He doesn’t know whether the role for him will include periodic usage at first base as well as designated hitter and catcher. He does know, however, what friends around the league have told him since the trade occurred last month.
The Orioles are a team few people enjoyed facing.
“When I have guys telling me that,” McCann said Tuesday, “that’s a good sign.”
Those friends talked about not wanting to face Baltimore’s young pitching staff, and McCann feels he can make the biggest impact with his new club by guiding those hurlers as they continue to grow and evolve.
At 32, McCann has a strong understanding of what works — and doesn’t — for pitchers. He’s caught Cy Young Award winners and rookies, experienced the highs and lows of a season, learned the ins and outs of how each pitcher ticks.
So while serving as the backup for Adley Rutschman, McCann sees his biggest chance to influence the Orioles’ push toward the postseason by sharing all that knowledge.
“You can’t replace experience,” McCann said. “Having a veteran player who’s been there — been through tough stretches and come out of it — talk to a young player, that’s a game changer.”
And McCann has been there.
In 2018, after hitting .220 for the Tigers, Detroit opted against tendering McCann a contract. He bounced back with an All-Star campaign in 2019 for the Chicago White Sox. And last season, McCann faced more injuries than ever before in his career and saw his batting average drop to a career-low .195.
There was frustration, sure. His average exit velocity went up from what it was in 2021 and his strikeout rate dropped, and he had an expected batting average of .240 — but the reality was much different. McCann felt he fixed some minor issues with his swing from 2021, but the results were worse than ever before.
It left him on the outside looking in at the Mets’ catching rotation heading into 2023, and with two years remaining on his contract, New York would rather pay the bulk of his salary — he has $24 million left over two years, of which the Orioles will pay just $5 million total — to have him play for a different team.
“I also know that at my position, the value that I bring to the defensive side is tremendous compared to what I can do offensively,” said McCann, who caught the 22nd-best strike percentage in baseball last season with a run value of 2. “That’s something I take a lot of pride in, is separating the offense from the defense and knowing that I can have a major impact on a game without ever doing a thing offensively.”
Of course, the Orioles are banking on McCann making some sort of offensive impact. Rutschman will handle the majority of innings behind the plate, but McCann will be in the lineup a few times each week at least to get Rutschman off his legs.
McCann could also feature as a designated hitter or a first baseman on occasion — both are possibilities floated by the Orioles to McCann on the night he was traded.
Wherever he plays, though, McCann is confident in his ability to bounce back from a dismal offensive year. He doesn’t view his work in Chicago — when he posted an .808 on-base plus slugging percentage between 2019 and 2020 — as an outlier.
After all, McCann has recovered from difficult times before. And at the very least, he can lean on those moments when he talks with the young players around him in Baltimore — the ones who may not have been knocked down yet, but who will have a helping hand to raise them back up should they fall.
“I’ve been there. I’ve experienced failure,” McCann said. “And I do think one of my strengths as a player is communicating with other players who might be experiencing failure and being able to get them through those tough times. Because at the end of the day, you’re going to have a lot more tough times than good times.”
Another minor trade
The Orioles sent cash to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Ryan O’Hearn, a first baseman and corner outfielder who had been designated for assignment last week. To make room on Baltimore’s 40-man roster, the Orioles designated right-hander Chris Vallimont for assignment.
The 29-year-old O’Hearn is a candidate to fill a need in Baltimore behind first baseman Ryan Mountcastle. The Orioles have searched for a left-handed bat at that position and had shown interest in free agent Eric Hosmer, according to the New York Post.
O’Hearn hit .239 in 67 games last year, managing just one home run and eight extra-base hits overall. Between 2019 and 2022, O’Hearn has been a below-average hitter, with his 73 OPS+ his best in the four-season span (with OPS+, 100 is considered average).
He reached a $1.4 million deal with the Royals to avoid arbitration and has one minor league option remaining.