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Perhaps the White Sox didn’t want to get greedy.
Kenny Williams and Co. offered arbitration to Paul Konerko and J.J. Putz, but bypassed the option to do the same for A.J. Pierzynski, who is now free to negotiate with all teams (including the White Sox) without the stigma of costing multiple draft picks.
I can’t say I’m a fan of this move, but you already know that. So let’s try to figure out where this could possibly lead, from the most likely to the most dangerous.
A friendly goodbye: Also known as The Scott Merkin Scenario (also the name of his college band), the Sox knew that offering Pierzynski arbitration was not a slam-dunk decision. Instead of putting themselves and Pierzynski through the wringer and risking payroll flexibility they couldn’t afford to lose, they decided to err on the side of goodwill and let Pierzynski enter free agency with more suitors.
A reduced one-year contract: The Sox effectively did this with Juan Uribe before the 2008 season, buying him out and signing him to a reduced deal that saved them $200,000. I think this is the least likely scenario, now that Pierzynski only costs money
(which puts him at a slight advantage over the other proven catcher, Miguel Olivo, who is Type B).
A two-year deal: This prospect is the most frightening thing about the decision to not offer him arb. Pierzynski was nearly the worst offensive player in the American League over the first 4 1/2 months of the season, and even after he caught fire for the rest of the schedule, he still finished with the worst performance of his career – at an age where catchers really start to feel their years.
It’s also the second time he’s cheated death. With nine straight seasons of 1,000 innings under his patellas, could the Sox bank on him skirting it for a third (or fourth) time? That’s not a risk I’d want to take.
I often wonder (WARNING: WEIGHING OF INTANGIBLES/UNKNOWABLES AHEAD!!!) if Pierzynski’s presence acts as a force on the behalf of arrested development. Twice now, we’ve seen him play piss-poor baseball, and this was the first time there was a legitimate superior player who could have taken more of his playing time.
The result was the same. At one point over a 56-game period, the White Sox received the following lines from their catchers:
- A.J. Pierzynski: .254/.282/.385
- Ramon Castro: .395/.458/.767
I’m sure you can guess which catcher made 79 percent of the starts. Guillen had options to truly shake things up, and for one reason or another, he declined.
Of course it’s not that simple. Castro isn’t durable enough to play every day (although it seems like he could play at least two out of seven), and White Sox pitchers sure like throwing to Pierzynski. And although their evaluation of Pierzynski’s game-calling seems like confirmation bias more than anything else, it must be mentioned.
Those are Pierzynski’s intangible contributions at their best — he’s tough and inspires confidence in his teammates. Neither should be dismissed.
On the other hand, those same qualities have their side effects, and it boils down to this question: Is Pierzynski an excellent handler of pitchers, or is he a placebo?
When you think about it, Pierzynski’s game-calling abilities don’t differ much from Greg Walker’s contributions — members of the White Sox only cite them when all is well. When pitchers are performing, he’s doing a great job puttin’ down numbers. When they’re struggling, the responsibility falls 100 percent on the rotation.
And while Phil Rogers pinned some of Tyler Flowers’ struggles on the unmovable object above him, White Sox pitchers might be equally to blame. They weren’t receptive of the prospect of a new receiving prospect, and when they’re inclined to rule out players they haven’t worked with, I’m inclined to believe they aren’t exactly objective.
(It’s just a shame the San Francisco Giants didn’t deliver their success story a year earlier. Tim Lincecum and friends sure didn’t have many problems going from Bengie Molina (a Pierzynskish figure in many ways) to Buster Posey, and that was in the middle of the season.)
Likewise, Pierzynski’s willingness to catch every game makes benching him a tougher proposition for Ozzie Guillen. Two years before Mark Buehrle openly doubted Flowers’ capacity to make pitchers comfortable, Pierzynski defended himself against the need for a more capable backup catcher in Toby Hall before any official games were played.
Guillen has taken several struggling starters out of the lineup for consecutive days in the past. Gordon Beckham sat in three straight games, and Alexei Ramirez has taken a couple days off during his cold-weather woes. Previously proven players like Uribe and Nick Swisher lost their jobs when they didn’t hit enough.
Not Pierzynski. Here’s an unbelievable fact that deserves its own indented line and bold treatment:
Over the last four seasons, Ozzie Guillen has never started a catcher besides A.J. Pierzynski in two consecutive games under normal circumstances.
There has only been one occasion where Pierzynski didn’t start consecutive games while the Sox were in the mathematical hunt for the pennant — July 24-25, 2007. I’m not inclined to count it, because the Sox played a doubleheader on July 24. Pierzynski started Game 1, then caught the second half of Game 2. Given that Pierzynski caught 13 innings in one day, Guillen gave him additional rest on July 25.
Otherwise, discounting doubleheaders and (very) late-September auditions, Pierzynski has never sat for more than one game at a time. That’s incredibly admirable on Pierzynski’s part, but given the hellacious slumps he’s battled through, it also suggests that Guillen is almost afraid to sit him, even when he’s a major drain on the offense. Guillen also waited until Pierzynski eclipsed 1,000 innings to start playing rookies, which is even more evidence to support that claim.
The Sox have done virtually everything in their power to keep Pierzynski happy, and Pierzynski never did less to deserve it than he did over the first three-quarters of 2010. That’s not a relationship I would like to see continue into 2011 and 2012, because I haven’t seen anything from Pierzynski to suggest he would give any ground, nor do I believe Guillen would want to make him.