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Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Why Pierzynski makes sense for Red Sox

By Gordon Edes



There are two immediate conclusions to be drawn from the Red Sox cutting ties with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and coming to terms with A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year deal:

  1. It is a vote of confidence for the catchers currently in the Sox pipeline, especially Christian Vazquez and Daniel Butler, and perhaps Ryan Lavarnway if the Sox don’t trade him this winter. The team’s top catching prospect, Blake Swihart, just finished High-A ball and thus is looking realistically at a 2016 arrival date in the big leagues, at the earliest. A three-year deal for Saltalamacchia could have kept him here as a bridge to Swihart, but the Sox never offered him more than two years, and he will sign elsewhere.

    Pierzynski
    A.J. Pierzynski is a noted agitator, but this deal indicates the Red Sox are confident he will fit in with the current group.
    By opting for Pierzynski, the Sox have left themselves with two catchers who will be 37 when the 2014 season begins, David Ross being the other. And Ross is coming off a season in which he was out for more than three months with multiple concussions. That would seem to be a precarious position for a club to put itself in, despite Pierzynski’s great durability (at least 125 games in each season since 2002). Imagine: Pierzynski was a high school teammate of the retired Johnny Damon at Dr. Phillips in Orlando, Fla.

    The Sox obviously have confidence that Butler and Vazquez could both fill in if the team needs another catcher. Butler hit over .300 for Triple-A Pawtucket in the second half of last season, striking out just 16 times. He finished with an .829 OPS and 14 home runs. One major league talent evaluator rated Butler, who is currently playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, a superior receiver than Lavarnway. Vazquez played for Double-A Portland after opening eyes in spring training last season with his powerful throwing arm.
  2. General manager Ben Cherington is satisfied that Pierzynski fits the same mold as some of the veteran pieces he imported last season -- a track record of winning elsewhere, including a World Series title with the White Sox in 2005. Pierzynski is a noted agitator despised by some rivals -- a 2012 Men’s Journal poll of more than 100 players rated him “the most hated player in the major leagues.’’ While praising him for his work ethic, Ozzie Guillen, his manager with the White Sox, also said: "If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.’’

    But in his one season in Texas, Pierzynski, who replaced Mike Napoli as Rangers catcher, by all accounts was held in high regard by his teammates. Ian Kinsler, who was just traded by the Rangers to the Tigers, described an environment that sounds very much like the Boston clubhouse in 2013.

    “My perception of him hasn’t really changed,” Kinsler told the Dallas Morning News. “I thought he was a player who wanted to win at all costs. He was a fiery guy. In that way, nothing has changed. But in my opinion, he’s a guy I enjoy having on the club.

    “This clubhouse, I think, is special,” Kinsler added. “We learned how to accept people for what they are and what they bring to the table. And we all rag on one another. Nobody is off limits. We all dish out what we can.”

    David Ortiz (Twins), Koji Uehara (Rangers) and Jake Peavy (White Sox) all played with Pierzynski, so Cherington didn’t have to look far for character references. After hitting two home runs and a double in a 14-2 rout of the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2005 division playoffs, Pierzynski said he used to have home run hitting contests with Ortiz.

    "We had fielding contests, home run hitting contests," Pierzynski said. "We'd do it for a Pepsi. Whoever won it had to bring a Pepsi from the cooler to the other guy. It was nothing big. Just basically to make up a competition and talk smack back and forth between David and I.

    "David's a great guy, a good friend of mine. David and I have gone back and forth for years. He's the best. I love him."

Pierzynski may have another notable tie to the Red Sox. He was born in Bridgehampton on Long Island, where his grandfather played on the Bridgehampton White Eagles, and family lore has it that one of the bat boys was Carl Yastrzemski.

Peavy in 2011 exchanged words with Pierzynski after being lifted from one game, but downplayed it afterward.

"Like I said, boys will be boys," Peavy told reporters. "We are going to say stuff to each other at times that may not sit well with the other. Talk through it and get it straight. Like I said, I love A.J. Pierzynski to death. He competes his rear end off and has for many years. He won a World Series here. I would like to do that again with him."

Another former White Sox teammate, Aaron Rowand, once described how Pierzynski got under the skin of opponents.

''You hit a ground ball, he'll step on your bat running down first base behind you. He'll give you an elbow at first base running down the line. He's just like that. Playing against him, you don't like it too much, but when he's on your team and doing those types of things for you, that's a completely different picture.’’

There is one significant way in which the left-handed hitting Pierzynski does not fit the Red Sox mold: plate discipline. His .297 on-base average last season was the lowest of his career, even though he was playing in a great hitting environment in Texas, and he walked just 11 times while striking out 76 times.

His career-high in walks is 25, in 2007.

Ross should get the majority of at-bats against left-handed pitchers, although it remains to be seen whether John Farrell employs a straight platoon. Pierzynski’s career OPS against lefties is almost 100 percentage points lower than against righties (.675 to .773), though last season it was almost the same (.718 vs. lefties, .724 vs. righties).

Saltalamacchia made big strides as a catcher with the Sox, though Sox manager John Farrell wound up leaning on Ross in the World Series. His 2.9 WAR (wins above replacement) was the highest of his career, compared to Pierzynski’s 1.6 for Texas. Defensively, he still had his detractors, but should be able to land a deal for at least three years elsewhere.