10:34 PM CST, December 26, 2012
Like the White Sox, the Rangers don't know who is going to catch for them beyond next year. But having recently gone through a transition featuring Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Treanor and Taylor Teagarden, they aren't turning over the position to someone who hasn't proved himself as a regular on a winning team.
The position is too important, especially for a team that expects to contend.
That's why they jumped to sign A.J. Pierzynski after losing Mike Napoli to the Red Sox and slugging center fielder Josh Hamilton to the Angels. While the White Sox head into 2013 with their fingers crossed that Tyler Flowers can hit in the big leagues, the Rangers are expecting — or at least hoping — a 36-year-old Pierzynski can duplicate his career-best performance at the plate from 2012.
Adding Pierzynski to play in front of Geovany Soto is a good move by the Rangers, who signed Pierzynski to a one-year contract. Allowing him to walk away without even an offer is a dangerous one for Rick Hahn, the new White Sox general manager, and I think he's going to regret it.
Money is always a factor, and it played a role in this situation. Hahn said Wednesday that while his decision reflects his faith in Flowers, there was an issue of "prioritizing'' the team's other needs.
Saving money at catcher helped to re-sign Jake Peavy, add Jeff Keppinger and could play into "some things coming down the pike in the next few weeks,'' Hahn said, with the search continuing for a versatile hitter who can bat from the left side, such as the Rays' Ben Zobrist or the Blue Jays' Adam Lind.
Even with Pierzynski, the Sox projected to finish far behind the powerful Tigers in the American League Central. Take Pierzynski out of the mix, open the door to a combination of Flowers and switch-hitting journeyman Hector Gimenez (maybe a better player than Flowers), and it's a coin flip whether the Sox can win enough 5-4 and 4-3 games to finish .500.
The Sox let Pierzynski leave even though he's one of Jerry Reinsdorf's favorites. The chairman issued a statement Wednesday, saying the guy who essentially stole first base in Game 2 of the 2005 ALCS against the Angels "epitomized Chicago's South Side through his toughness, his attitude, his flair for the dramatic and his passion for the game. He came to compete — and to win — every day.''
Pierzynski will earn $7.5 million next year, a career high, after averaging just under $5 million a year for his eight seasons in Chicago. He was the best buy in town at those prices, and he leaves having made huge strides as a hitter, thanks more to his longtime teachers, Greg Walker and Mike Gellinger, than to 2012 hitting coach Jeff Manto.
Pierzynski should have been an All-Star last season, when he hit .278 with 27 home runs, 77 RBIs and an .827 OPS while catching 1,000-plus innings for the 11th year in a row. He's a great fit for Rangers Ballpark, and while he didn't say it Wednesday, he believes his numbers will go up without half a season in cold weather.
Hahn believes Flowers will be at least as good defensively as Pierzynski, and while it never has been voiced, some feel the pitching staff and clubhouse will welcome a changing of the guard. We'll see if that's true. It better be as Hahn has acknowledged there's no way Flowers — a .205 career hitter in 273 major league at-bats scattered over four seasons — can hit like Pierzynski.
On a team with no consistent run producers in their prime, can the Sox afford to subtract a guy who gave them a lot more than the norm for his position?
Pierzynski knows some look at his 2012 stats as an outlier, not an indication of future success. Bill James, for instance, projects him to .269 with 17 homers and a .732 OPS next year. But don't be shocked if Pierzynski hits 30-plus homers in Texas.
"People say I'm going to lose it,'' Pierzynski said Wednesday. "But it's not going to happen.''
With the help of Sox strength coach Allen Thomas and trainers Herm Schneider and Brian Ball, Pierzynski has stayed in great shape. He looked woeful at the plate as recently as 2010, seemingly having lost his bat speed, but he countered that in 2011 with subtle changes in his mechanics and timing. Pierzynski told me in August the changes involve "timing, balance, general body feeling and trying easier … easy is better.''
Hahn acknowledged it's tough to let a popular player go. "I get it,'' he said. "I was upset when Wilber Marshall joined the Redskins, when Horace Grant left the Bulls for the Orlando Magic … but at the end of the day, we had to do what we thought was in the best interest of the organization.''
Turning over a would-be contender to an unknown quantity at catcher? To make one more Chicago analogy, it's risky business.
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