James McCann has been an early season bright spot: Is he working his way into the White Sox long-term plans?

Vinnie Duber
NBC Sports Chicago

James McCann has been an early season bright spot: Is he working his way into the White Sox long-term plans? originally appeared on nbcsportschicago.com

When the White Sox gave James McCann a one-year deal in December, it likely wasn't with eyes on him being the catcher of the future.

He came with the same promise of the rest of the team's veteran additions of recent vintage: a guy who could help the younger players, a guy who could have an impact on the rebuild even if he wasn't going to be on the next championship-contending roster on the South Side. With Zack Collins and Seby Zavala seemingly destined for late-season major league debuts, McCann wasn't brought aboard to entrench himself behind the plate.

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It's certainly too early to say he's done that, as McCann will quickly point out, but he's been one of the brightest spots for the White Sox this season. And at just 28, it's not outrageous to suggest the one-year deal handed out to simply get another big league caliber catcher on the 2019 roster might bloom into more. At the very least, it looks like a second season would be a no-brainer at this point. Though the White Sox signed McCann to a one-year contract, he's still arbitration eligible at the end of the campaign, which makes retaining him for the 2020 season look like a relatively simple decision.

But what about beyond that? This is a team that's always looking into the far-off future, one where general manager Rick Hahn hopes he's crafted a perennial contender. When Hahn gazes into that crystal ball, does he see McCann?

"He's been everything we had hoped for in terms of in the clubhouse and from a defensive standpoint and quite frankly more than we had even hoped for offensively," Hahn said earlier this week. "He made an adjustment with his stance in the offseason that he's talked about openly. That's really clicked for him. He's been a great acquisition for us. We have control of him through arbitration next year and certainly look forward to having him around for a while."

Certainly McCann has done enough in the first month and a half of the 2019 season to make the question a not-so-ridiculous one. He leads the team with a .366 batting average, a .404 on-base percentage and a .581 slugging percentage. McCann's not yet qualified to rank among baseball's league leaders in such categories, but among players who have had at least 90 at-bats this season (McCann was at 93 heading into this weekend's four-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays), he ranks 14th with a .985 OPS.

And he's done the job he was brought in to do, too, working with the team's young pitchers and producing some positive results. Most notably, that's manifested itself in the form of Lucas Giolito's budding breakout campaign. After Giolito led baseball in ERA and WHIP and ranked second in walks during the 2018 season, he's suddenly the most reliable starting pitcher on the South Side staff. Giolito himself deserves the bulk of the credit for his 3.55 ERA in seven starts - three of which have been of the quality variety, including one run allowed in his last 14.1 innings - and McCann will happily give it to him. But the pitcher has been thrilled with what McCann has provided, as well.

"One guy that jumps out is Lucas Giolito. You see what he's been able to do on the mound," McCann said when asked earlier this week about young guys who have impressed him so far this season. "It's easy to choose a guy like that because his numbers are there, you see the results he's had. But even watching the way he goes about his business, the way he goes about his preparation between starts, the understanding he's coming to about who he is as a pitcher."

"He's learned my pitching style and what I like to do really fast," Giolito told Our Chuck Garfien about McCann earlier this week. "He can see things and make adjustments for me to make my job easier. ... He can be that field general and I can just shut my brain off and execute each pitch."

The offensive production has rapidly changed McCann from the guy who was brought in to back up Welington Castillo for a year to a guy White Sox fans want to see in the lineup every day. And they're getting their wish. Rick Renteria has found a spot for McCann, whether that's an increase in his catching workload or a turn as the designated hitter. Renteria's even inserted McCann into the cleanup spot several times this year, and McCann's delivered with a .414/.452/.655 slash line as the No. 4 hitter.

While the catching job of the future has long seemed destined to be a Collins-Zavala production, unexpected good news can upend the best laid plans in this game. Throw in the questions about Collins' defense that have hounded him since he was drafted, and maybe he winds up swinging his power bat at a different position on the field. Maybe McCann keeps doing the good work with the pitchers that he's done in his brief time as a South Sider.

It's all speculation, of course, and McCann will be among the first to tell you that it's still early. We asked similar questions last season about surprise candidates to work their way into the long-term plans. Daniel Palka springs to mind, and the White Sox waited all of 17 games before sending him down to Triple-A this season. Dylan Covey had flashes of brilliance while youngsters like Giolito struggled around him in 2018. He's back in the White Sox rotation now, but only after multiple starters went down with injuries.

The point is that things can change. But they already have so far this season for McCann. At the moment, he's not just some name on a depth chart in a losing season, and maybe that could have an effect on how the White Sox envision that roster of the future.

"I feel very blessed and thankful to god for the start that I've had here. But I understand it's a six-month season," McCann said. "There's still a lot of work to be done.

"You don't necessarily set expectations for May 13. ... But the expectation I had for myself coming into the season was take every day for what it was, take every at-bat for what it is, every pitch for what it is and do everything I could to help this team win. I feel like I've helped some of the pitchers along the way, and I can look to continue to help them grow and mature as the season goes on.

"I'd love to be here long term, but that's not, honestly, my call. All I can do is control what I can control. This is a great clubhouse to be a part of. This is a great organization with a lot of tradition to be a part of. And if that's what god has in store, I'm all for it. But I'm just trying to control each day for what it is and win each day, whatever that win may be."

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