Sox position analysis: A.J. not easily replaced

Two years ago, the Chicago White Sox were prepared to sign Miguel Olivo to a two-year contract before A.J. Pierzynski struck a last-minute deal that provided the team with one of its best values since the turn of this century.

But there will be no discounts this winter, as Pierzynski enters free agency as the most attractive player at his position with plenty of considerations that likely will sway him away from U.S. Cellular Field after a successful and eventful eight-year run.

Should Pierzynski leave, the Sox would miss the most durable catcher in the majors during his span with the Sox. They also would be challenged to replace his offensive production, as evidenced by his career highs of 27 home runs and 77 RBIs (duplicating his lone season with San Francisco in 2004).

His production from the sixth spot provided plenty of protection for Alex Rios and gave the Sox more balance from the left side of the lineup after they produced only 181 RBIs in 2011 and 186 in 2010.

The Sox’s younger pitchers were quicker to praise Pierzynski’s game-calling than in past years, when some would privately complain that Pierzynski would demand a certain pitch rather than signal for one that the pitchers were more comfortable with.

And no one was more pleased with the Sox’s renewed commitment to keeping base runners closer than Pierzynski, who was successful in nailing 27.1 percent of runners on steal attempts with a throw.

Coincidentally, pitchers had the same ERA (4.04) with backup Tyler Flowers behind the plate as they did with Pierzynski. The starting pitchers were quicker to praise Flowers, who took great strides in letting pitchers call their game.

There haven’t been any questions about Flowers’ throwing, as evidenced by his 37.5 percent success on nailing base stealers when attempting a throw. Pitchers love the way Flowers blocks pitches and he was charged with only one passed ball.

But it’s been four years since general manager Ken Williams touted Flowers as a future All-Star after acquiring him in a multi-player trade involving Javier Vazquez. And Flowers will turn 27 before spring training starts.

Flowers hit seven home runs in 136 at-bats, and the Sox hinted that his production could improve with extended playing time. The 2012 season marked the first time in Flowers’ career that he was relegated to a reserve role, and his 56 strikeouts were alarming.

Until the final three weeks, Flowers was batting over .300 against left-handed pitchers. But he struck out 36 times in 84 at-bats, in addition to a .179 batting average against right-handers.

Josh Phegley won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award at Triple-A Charlotte, but just as important was the fact that he played in 102 games after battling a blood disorder two years ago.

Carrying Flowers and Phegley on a major league roster would leave the Sox without a catcher with more than two full years of experience. But Phegley will turn 25 before next spring.

Which brings us back to Pierzynski. One long-time major league scout predicted in mid-June that Pierzynski would get a lucrative deal despite his age (he turns 36 on Dec. 30) because of his production, the fact he bats left-handed and the shortage of quality catchers.

Very few players past the age of 33 can catch as many games as Pierzynski has (1,000-plus innings for 11 consecutive seasons) and produce at a high level. But Pierzynski batted only .237 with three home runs, six RBIs and 20 strikeouts in September and October.

More teams are stockpiling young catching or converting position players to catchers. But it could take a few years before Kevan Smith, a former Pitt quarterback, or Michael Blanke, a junior college third baseman, are ready to challenge for playing time at the major league level.

Hector Gimenez, who has played bits of three major league seasons, could loom larger as a backup if Pierzynski leaves and Flowers handles the bulk of the duties.

And should Pierzynski depart, it would end one of the most entertaining chapters in Sox history, given his popularity with fans, his durability, the ability to goad opponents with his mix of toughness (such as breaking up double plays with hard slides), sarcasm (lobbing throws to third base after strikeouts on off-speed pitches) and his entertaining exchanges with teammates, opponents, fans (including professional wrestler Brian Knobbs and former President George W. Bush) and media members.

mgonzales@tribune.com

Twitter @MDGonzales

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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