By Ashley Dunkak
LAKELAND, FLA. – A player makes the big league club by taking someone else’s spot, and for 24-year-old Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann, that task will not be easy.
While the Tigers have high hopes for McCann, they also like what they have seen over a span of time from veterans Alex Avila and Bryan Holaday. Avila has played 616 games in the majors. Holaday has played 84, but 62 of those appearances came last season. McCann made his major league debut in 2014, but he played in only nine games.
Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said the past performance of each of those three will be weighed in the competition at catcher, and in that respect, Avila and Holaday have an obvious edge.
“Because I’m a little skeptical of spring training performances, some of it has to go based on what my and the coaching staff’s experience has been with players and how we think they’ll perform given the opportunity,” Ausmus said Wednesday in his office. “At some point – you can’t have a track record with every single player because, at some point, young players come up, so you kind of go on your instincts or your gut or your experience. Alex obviously has a track record.
“We watch McCann a lot closer,” Ausmus said. “And Doc, we pretty much know what Doc can do, Bryan Holaday, so we know his abilities.
“He actually did an excellent job for us,” Ausmus added. “He brings a lot of energy to the club and to the clubhouse. He has some value beyond catching.”
The manager also praised Holaday for his skill set, one unique on a team of heavy hitters.
“He was actually, for a guy who didn’t run well, an excellent base runner,” Ausmus said. “He could bunt, he had that bunt against the White Sox, he can bunt for a hit, he can hit and run. Our lineup – we’ve got a lot of sluggers in our lineup. We don’t have a bunch of guys who can do the little things, and Bryan Holaday was really one of the guys that could do the little things.”
Holaday turned in a batting average of .231 last season, while Avila hit .218 but had a much higher on-base percentage of .327. McCann, over 109 games with Triple-A Toledo, batted .295 with an on-base percentage of .343. In his nine major league appearances – which included only 12 at bats – McCann’s batting average was .250.
If Tigers do not choose to platoon McCann with Avila, they could send him back to the minor leagues so he would get all his at bats rather than sitting on the bench. That decision would be one made not just by the coaches but also with general manager Dave Dombrowski and assistant general manager Al Avila.
As far as how McCann could overcome a lack of experience, Ausmus hinted at spring training games, though his reluctance to buy into results in those games still applied.
“I guess it’s impossible to not be at least a little influenced by performance, although I try to temper how that affects me, in spring training,” Ausmus said. “We think he’s going to be a very good catcher, but I think all of it plays in … It’s not only what is best for the Tigers, but you also have to think a little bit about what’s best for James McCann’s career.”
For his part, Holaday welcomes the competition.
“I’m really excited about it,” Holaday said. “Competition’s great for everyone. It pushes you, and it tests you, and so it’s great in all aspects. I’m really excited about it.
McCann understands the difficultly of unseating older players. Asked about his goals for spring training, McCann said he plans to come out and control what he can control. As far as what aspect of his game might stand in the way of him being the starting catcher, McCann noted what he lacks most is playing time at the highest level.
“The biggest thing for me is just try and get that experience,” McCann said. “So any chance I get to talk to a Verlander or a Price or Joe Nathan, guys that have been around and done it for so many years, I’m going to try to take as much information from them as possible. That way, there’s going to be a learning curve, but if I have knowledge from guys who’ve gone through it previously, hopefully that learning curve is a little shortened and I’m able to succeed through that period of adjustment.”