This morning, the Boston Red Sox came to 1 year, $8.25mil deal with former Texas Ranger, AJ Pierzynski.
Big splash move? One that will cement the Red Sox as back-to-back champs?
No, he’s not Brian McCann. No, he’s not Carlos Ruiz. Yes, this means that Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be (most likely) taking his talents and beautiful, beautiful hair elsewhere (and all the luck to him).
But make no mistake. This is a good move.
Here are three reasons to flat-out adore this signing of A.J. Pierzynski:
1. Dude can still hit
First things first. Pierzynski is going to be 37 this year. So will David Ross. It’s Old Dogs time behind the plate at Fenway. That being said, Pierzynski is still a good hitter, and next to McCann and Salty, is the best catcher with power on the free agent market.
Last season, Pierzynski hit .272 with 17 HR and 70 RBI. The season before that, and his last with the Chicago White Sox, was also his best (.278, 27 HR, 77 RBI). Pierzynski’s batting average dipped a bit after the All-Star break last season (.260 compared to .284) but his power held up and it’s not a big enough drop to think that it’s a sign of advanced age catching up the catcher.
Sure he has his quirks. Pierzynski just doesn’t walk a lot. Like to a shocking degree. Pierzynski only walked 11 times last season, which was a low for him, but not that far off his season average of 16.8. But Pierzynski also doesn’t strike out a lot. His 76 K’s in 2013 would have put him in the bottom three on Red Sox everyday players: only Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino struck out less.
Plus, for some weird reason, Pierzynski bats lefty, despite catching as a righty. As we learned this past postseason, flexibility and lineup variety is key to throwing off the other team’s bullpen plans. Add in Pierzynski’s stunning durability (he hasn’t played in less than 125 games since 2001) and you’ve got a pretty good catcher on your hands. Definitely not an upgrade over Salty in terms of talent, but for what the Red Sox are looking for, he’ll do.
2. He’s an asshole. And now he’s our asshole.
A.J. Pierzynski is a notable jerk. He’s often rated “Least Liked in Baseball”, “Most Plunkable in Baseball” and on and on. He got into a fistfight with Michael Barrett. He yells, he barks, he grumbles. He’s a bad, bad man.
And now he’s ours. And I’m pumped.
First of all, the story around Pierzynski is the same as many other “Sports Jerks”: you hate to play against him, but you love having him on your side (see: Youkilis, Gomes, Kevin Garnett, and on and on). And his teammates, especially in Chicago and Texas, swear by him. Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Jake Peavy (who he even fought with), and our very own pitching coach Juan Nieves, have all stood up publicly to defend Pierzynski’s leadership in the clubhouse and work with the pitchers, seeing his fiery antics as a sign of his uber-competitiveness, not his being a bad seed.
Who else sides with AJ? David Ortiz. Per Ben Reiter’s August 2012 article on Pierzynski in Sports Illustrated: “’People like to stamp guys from the beginning,’ said Ortiz, Pierzynski’s teammate with the twins from 1998 to 2002, and a friend. ‘One guy says it, and then everyone else follows what that guy says, and then, boom.”
Yes, I’ve gone on and on and on about how key it is for the Red Sox to hold onto to their magical chemistry. But there’s a flip side to that: the Red Sox front office knows how to assemble players to achieve that. Players like Pedroia, Ortiz, Victorino, Ross, and Gomes (and hopefully Napoli) will welcome Pierzynski’s energy and work with him to channel it to the benefit of the team.
Pierzynski isn’t some pariah, or someone who rails on his teammates to the press, or someone who lets off-field issues take away from his game (cough, A-Rod, cough). He’s an angry, foul, beast of a man on the field. Which is fine by me. Just like Chicago fans and Rangers fans, we as a fanbase will claim Pierzynski as one of our own. Get that man a beard, he’s a Masshole now.
(Also I literally cannot wait for every Peavy/Pierzynski start. The MLB’s gonna have to put an apologetic “R” rating before every televised game).
3. Because it shows the front office’s faith in the young guns
This is my favorite part of this whole deal. If the Red Sox had relented and given Saltalamacchia a multi-year deal, or gone after McCann or traded for a young catcher like Matt Wieters, the message would’ve been, “We like our prospects…but we’re still a little unsure.”
With this signing? The Red Sox aren’t unsure. They’re all in on their future. David Ross and A.J. Pierzynski have been brought because they’re both tremendous veterans, who know a thing or two about catching, and will be fantastic guides for Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez.
Vazquez is the closest to contributing, and (unless Ryan Lavarnway morphs into Carlton Fisk overnight) may be the Red Sox defacto third catcher already. The 23-year old reached Pawtucket by the end of last season, and hit .287/.375/.391 overall in 2013. The 5-foot-9 Puerto Rican catcher has a little bit of pop in him, but is more renowned for his patience at the plate (44/48 K/BB).
Far and away, however, Vazquez’s calling card is his defense. Vazquez has a tremendous arm, has one of the fastest pop-up times in baseball, and can already call a good game. He’s a smart, dependable player, and spends his offseason training with the Molina brothers and watched Ivan Rodriguez tapes religiously as a youth. To have a defensive specialist this far along for his age is stupendous, and with time, his bat will catch up with his glove.
While Swihart is a bit farther away, he makes up for it in upside. Swihart, a switch-hitter, hit .298/.366/.428 with 38 XBH, and 42 RBI last season in the Carolina League. The 21-year old has potential in all aspects of the game, and as his body and understanding of the catching game develops, his plus arm and athleticism will really be put to good use.
Saltalamacchia had a hell of a season, and we’ll miss him. He wanted a multi-year deal and he truly deserves one. But that didn’t fit with Boston’s plan. AJ Pierzynski is by no means a complete replacement for Salty’s bat, and he’s certainly not an upgrade. But this is a long-term plan that Benny C is enacting, and Pierzynski’s one year, low-risk/high-reward deal is perfect for that plan.
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