Two years ago this week, the Mets made one of their first major signings of the Steve Cohen era. It was a four-year, $40.6 million deal with catcher James McCann. To celebrate this anniversary, New York signed Omar Narvaez Thursday night, which would give them four (!) catchers on the 40-man roster.
This signing all but means McCann will be traded soon. We can assume Francisco Alvarez isn’t going anywhere, and the Mets probably want to hold onto Gold Glove finalist Tomas Nido.
McCann has appeared in just 182 games for the Mets since 2021. His offensive numbers have been less-than-inspiring. He’s slashed .220/.282/.328 with 13 home runs, 64 RBI, and 0.9 fWAR in 603 plate appearances. He’s also owed $24 million over the final two years of his current deal.
Whenever I look back on the Mets signing McCann, it’s impossible to not think about J.T. Realmuto. He was also a free agent that winter, and easily the top available catcher. New York was reportedly pursuing him before pivoting to McCann. The Philadelphia Phillies ended up re-signing the backstop to a five-year, $115 million deal.
This graphic from SNY comparing their 2019-20 production has become legendary (for the wrong reasons, obviously):
Two years ago today, the Mets signed James McCann.
SNY posted this comparing him to star catcher J.T. Realmuto. pic.twitter.com/ZZvorlDpz3
— Metsmerized Online (@Metsmerized) December 15, 2022
Over the past two seasons, Realmuto has slashed .269/.342/.459 with 39 home runs and 157 RBI in 1,099 plate appearances. This has resulted in 11.0 total fWAR, one All-Star appearance, one Gold Glove, one Silver Slugger, and a seventh-place finish in 2022 NL MVP voting.
So, what’s the valuable lesson here? The obvious one is to sign better players, but what I’m thinking about is also simple:
When there’s an elite free-agent option available for a position New York needs to fill, pay the premium price. Get the elite option instead of going with the less expensive one because sometimes, you get what you pay for. The Mets have learned that the hard way with their catching situation.
Would signing Realmuto have potentially blocked Alvarez? Well, yes, but he’s still just 21 years old. And based on the Mets’ decision to sign Narvaez before McCann is even sent packing, they probably don’t think he’s ready to catch MLB pitching regularly. New York’s offense was the third-best unit in baseball this past season, according to wRC+. Can you imagine what it would’ve looked like with Realmuto? Goodness, gracious.
Thankfully, this is a lesson Cohen learned quickly. We saw it last offseason with the Black Friday spending spree, which was eventually punctuated with the signing of Max Scherzer. Cohen’s learnings have been on display again this offseason with the Mets’ latest splurge.
Once Jacob deGrom left for the Texas Rangers, it would’ve been easy to pivot to less expensive options with so many rotation holes to fill. He instead opted for the other top-shelf option in Justin Verlander, who just won his third Cy Young Award. The same thing happened with re-signing Brandon Nimmo. He was clearly the best center-field option available. Instead of saving some money with a lesser alternative, the Mets got their man by committing more years and dollars than many were expecting.
There’s risk baked into these two moves, but there’s risk involved in any big-time free-agent signing.
This was a valuable lesson for Cohen to learn at the start of his tenure as owner. Not all big-time signings will be slam dunks. However, I think New York will sleep better at night knowing it didn’t work out with the clear-cut top option available to them, not the second or third-best one.