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Had the Mets shifted priorities, they might have welcomed Willson Contreras or Francisco Alvarez to the lineup as their newest catcher this week.
Instead, James McCann was activated off the injured list Thursday and set to catch in his first game in nearly four weeks.
In endorsing their strong defensive duo of McCann and Tomas Nido, the Mets opted against catchers with higher offensive upsides. Contreras is still with the Cubs, and Mets general manager Billy Eppler signaled Tuesday that the 20-year-old Alvarez, who is at Triple-A Syracuse, may not be an option for this season.
The Mets entered play with the fifth-best ERA in baseball, and the club believes the contributions it is receiving from its catchers is a significant factor toward maximizing the rotation and bullpen.
“The faith that [the front office] put in us means a lot,” said McCann, who batted ninth and caught Carlos Carrasco in the first of five consecutive games against the Braves at Citi Field. “But their expectations for me are never going to be as high as my expectations for me. I know what I can contribute to this team both offensively and defensively.
“There’s a lot that goes into a winning ballclub, and I feel like I can contribute.”
McCann has not gotten going with his bat, posting just a .543 OPS in 30 games before he suffered an oblique strain July 9, his second significant injury this season. McCann missed more than six weeks earlier after surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his left wrist.
Manager Buck Showalter said he thought McCann was beginning to find himself at the plate before the oblique injury. There is hope that a hitter who was a 2019 All-Star and 2020 standout (.896 OPS) eventually will bounce back.
But the Mets are demonstrating that McCann’s and Nido’s defensive acumen — especially with a pitching staff that is difficult to catch — is heavily valued.
“I think our relationship with [McCann and Nido] is really, really good,” said Chris Bassitt, who throws at least six distinct pitches and needed a few outings with Nido to grow comfortable. “So why mess that up?”
Catching Max Scherzer’s detailed arsenal can be complicated. Jacob deGrom, with his filthy stuff, needs to be on the same page with his catcher. Taijuan Walker has excelled this season, mostly with Nido behind the plate. In 11 games with Nido, Walker has a 2.65 ERA.
If the Mets had brought in a proven catcher who is a better hitter or had called up their top prospect, they might have risked hurting the season’s biggest strength: the team’s pitching.
They hope that strength will only grow stronger with a healthy McCann, who caught Mets pitchers to the tune of a 2.72 ERA before he went down. Nido’s mark is 3.72.
“[McCann] understands my game. He does his homework and he understands all the hitters in the league,” said Bassitt, who owns a 2.84 ERA when caught by McCann. “It’s been a good combo.”
Showalter has signaled the Mets will rotate McCann and Nido in the coming days. McCann had not yet worked back-to-back games during his rehab assignment with Double-A Binghamton.
The 32-year-old got 18 plate appearances (with four hits, including a home run) with Binghamton. Showalter hopes the time away and time removed from surgery have allowed McCann to further strengthen his hand, which would help his swing.
For McCann, who would like to be done with rehab this season, a key will be trying to help without trying to make up for lost time.
McCann said he needs to “not try to find a way to make a six-run homer happen.”
“Just take what’s given to me and try to get into a rhythm,” he added. “There are two months left — the most important part of the season is coming up.”
And it appears to feature defense-first catchers and a top of the rotation that McCann, at long last, will be able to catch.
“Finally we got the 1-2 punch that everyone dreamed of,” McCann said of deGrom and Scherzer. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch. Now getting to catch and be a part of it … I look forward to contributing.”