One departure was expected, another not as anticipated Friday when the Tigers said goodbye to catcher James McCann and reliever Alex Wilson ahead of an 8 p.m. deadline for offering team-control players 2019 contracts.
The Tigers decided McCann’s numbers, offensively and defensively, did not warrant the $3.5-4 million he would have been expected to receive in 2019 as an arbitration-eligible player. Likewise, Wilson, for all his utility and reliability in the Tigers bullpen, didn’t make the cut as a team grinding through a rebuild decided roster and payroll space must be cleared.
“You’re always prepared for it,” McCann said Friday, from his home near Nashville, Tennessee, not long after he had gotten the word from Tigers general manager Al Avila. “I was well aware of the situation, all the way around. It’s a business as much as anything, and at some point you learn it.”
McCann’s departure is one of the more dramatic non-tenders in recent Tigers history. He is only 28 and had been the team’s starting catcher the past four seasons. But he batted only .220 in 2018, with a .267 on-base percentage and an alarmingly low OPS of .581. More troubling for the Tigers, his defensive statistics for framing and blocking pitches was in the deep recesses of big-league catching data, no better than 100th among catchers in both leagues.
He countered with a superior throwing arm, shutting down opposing running games perhaps as well or better than any catcher in baseball. But it wasn’t enough to induce the Tigers to bring him back when John Hicks and rookie Grayson Greiner loom as better options in the minds of Tigers executives.
The need to clear 40-man roster space was very much behind Friday’s moves, particularly with respect to Wilson. The Tigers were at 39 ahead of Friday’s deals and want space not only as they shop for help, both in the infield and with their pitching staff, but because they believe an attractive player might be available Dec. 14 when the Rule 5 draft wraps up this year’s Winter Meetings at Las Vegas.
Wilson’s exit was the greater surprise, in part because he made only $1.925 million in 2018 and, like McCann, because he had been such a Tigers staple the past four years. He had his bumpy moments in 2018, but otherwise pitched well: 59 games, 3.36 ERA, 1.05 WHIP.
His four seasons with the Tigers testify to a durable and consistent bulldog of a reliever: 246 games, 3.20 ERA, 1.16 WHIP. He often provided the Tigers with a rare interlude of trustworthy bullpen labor. But he turned 32 this month and, in a marketplace that has been uncommonly soft the past two years, Wilson was more proof that teams have other options.
The Tigers had been willing to deal him — as well as McCann, and shortstop Jose Iglesias, etc. — and found virtually zero serious shoppers throughout.
Unwilling to have any quality minor-leaguers poached in next month’s Rule 5 draft, a team scrambling to load its 40-man list with youth, and still in need of adding a shortstop and probably a starting pitcher, decided Wilson was a luxury it no longer could carry.
Wilson came to the Tigers four years ago in a trade that sent Wilson, then a low-profile Red Sox reliever, to the Tigers along with Yoenis Cespedes and throw-in pitcher Gabe Speier for Rick Porcello.
McCann had arrived in 2014 as a September call-up from Triple A Toledo, completing a steady rise through the Tigers farm after they had drafted him in the second round in 2011 following a lusty career at the University of Arkansas.
He played well as a rookie, batting .264, with a .683 OPS. During the next two seasons he hit a combined 25 home runs, even as he was slipping to a .221 average followed by a .253 effort in 2017.
Of greater concern to the Tigers was that a player 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, who had shown such defensive promise and mechanics early in his career did not improve, and even regressed, as a receiver.
The combination was fatal for McCann’s career in Detroit.
“I really haven’t had the opportunity to reflect on any of that,” McCann said Friday. “I do think from the standpoint of being a leader in the clubhouse, and controlling the pitching staff — I think a lot of that was perhaps overlooked. Numbers don’t always look like everyone knows they can look.
“There was a lot of talk about my down offensive year, but I was just a year removed from 2017 (.253 and .733 OPS).
“This game,” McCann said, “is a fickle game.”
The Tigers will offer 2019 contracts to their other team-control players eligible for arbitration: Nicholas Castellanos, Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd, Shane Greene, Daniel Norris and Blaine Hardy.