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Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Positional series: Old reliables at catcher

By Gordon Edes

This is the third in a weekly series evaluating the Red Sox roster by category: infield, outfield, catching, starting pitching, bullpen, defense and DH.

Xander Bogaerts was still learning to walk when A.J. Pierzynski left Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, where he'd played with Johnny Damon, and signed his first pro contract with the Minnesota Twins in 1994. Bogaerts was kindergarten age when David Ross came out of the University of Florida and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998.

Pierzynski turned 37 on Dec. 30. Ross turns 37 on March 19. Neither one of them is a relic. The Red Sox turned to Ross in the World Series last October to guide their pitching staff to a championship. Pierzynski caught in 119 games for the Texas Rangers last season and hit 17 home runs.

A.J. Pierzynski
A.J. Pierzynski is known as an intensely hard worker who should handle the high-stress environment of Boston with ease.
Still, they enter spring training for the Sox as the third oldest catching tandem in baseball history. Hall of Famer Gary Carter and Rick Cerone were both 38 in 1992 when they split catching duties for the Montreal Expos. Al Todd was 38 and Gabby Hartnett 39 when they shared time for the Chicago Cubs in 1940 (in all cases, age computed as of June 30; stats provided by baseball-reference.com).

The Sox have had just six catchers 37 years or older who caught at least 20 games in a season: Jason Varitek, Elston Howard, Mickey Owen, Birdie Tebbetts, Grover Hartley and Duke Farrell. Of that group, only Varitek (106 games at age 37 in 2009) started as many as 100 games behind the plate, the task for which Pierzynski has been commissioned in 2014.

That the Sox have confidence in Pierzynski's ability to do so is testament to his durability: He has been on the disabled list just twice in his career, once with a fractured wrist after being hit by a pitch in 2011, once with a strained oblique last season. He has caught more games (1,678) than any active player, and ranks 13th all-time in games played (1,763) by players who caught in at least 90 percent of the games in which they appeared.

It also speaks to the confidence GM Ben Cherington has in the next generation of Sox catchers in the pipeline, namely Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart, Daniel Butler and Ryan Lavarnway, a major reason why Cherington opted not to re-sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia and to import Pierzynski for a bridge year.

Unless Lavarnway makes a compelling case this year that he can handle the job, Vazquez and Swihart are the leading candidates to be the team's catchers of the future. Meanwhile Butler, who did an able job last year with Pawtucket, particularly as a receiver, offers immediate insurance in the event of injury, which takes on added significance given Ross' experience with concussive symptoms last year that limited him to 36 games and 116 plate appearances in 2013.

Jon Lester, David Ross
Ross, who proved to have a firm hand on the Red Sox pitching staff last season, could catch 40 to 50 games in 2014.
When healthy, Ross performed as advertised, throwing out 41 percent (13-of-32) of attempted base stealers, exercising a firm hand on the pitching staff and displaying the character qualities the Sox prioritized in the offseason. If healthy, it's reasonable to expect Ross to catch between 40 and 50 games this season, and he could be used in a platoon situation with the left-handed-hitting Pierzynski, whose career OPS is more than 100 percentage points higher against right-handed pitchers (.773) than lefties (.675), though that gap was much smaller (.724 to .718) last season.

Pierzynski, while a known irritant to the opposition, brings a similar set of personality attributes to the Sox clubhouse. He is an intensely hard worker who should handle the high-stress environment of Boston with ease. Known more as a spray hitter early in his career, Pierzysnki hit a career-high 27 home runs for the White Sox in 2012 and followed with another 17 for Texas last season. His .297 on-base percentage last season was the lowest of his career, and he showed slippage across the board in the second half (.765 OPS to .676), but has been consistent in maintaining only mild deviations from his career slash line of .283/.322/.428/.750.

Pierzynski does not walk -- he had only 11 walks last season, his 2.1 percent walk rate the lowest of his career -- but makes better contact than his predecessor Saltalamacchia, striking out 76 times to Saltalamacchia's 139 last season.

Defensively, his arm does not compare to that of Ross, though he threw out 24-of-73 base stealers last season, or 33 percent, his highest percentage as a regular. It will help that he worked with Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves when both were with the White Sox, and his game-calling should be more than adequate.

So, unless both Pierzynski and Ross fossilize overnight, the catching should be more than adequate in 2014.