The dismantling of the 2014 Red Sox has begun. On Wednesday, the defending world champions designated A.J. Pierzynski for assignment, giving them 10 days either to trade or release their 37-year-old starting backstop. While they’ll likely wind up paying nearly all of his remaining salary unless some team claims him on waivers, the move allows the struggling club — which at 39-51 is dead last even in an underwhelming AL East — to give prospect Christian Vazquez a long look.
The Sox won last year with Jarrod Saltalamacchia doing the bulk of the catching. While his defense (21-percent caught-stealing rate, −12.5 framing runs) was subpar, he hit .273/.338/.466 with 14 homers en route to a 118 OPS+, tied for fourth-highest on the team and a career high for the 28-year-old switch-hitter. With multiple catching prospects in the pipeline, the Sox were unwilling to make a long-term investment in Saltalamacchia, so they let him depart via a relatively modest three-year, $21 million deal with the Marlins.
To replace him, general manager Ben Cherington and company went for a shorter-term stopgap, signing Pierzynski. The price — one year, $8.25 million — apparently outweighed Pierzynski's dreadful plate discipline (a 76/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio to go with a .272/.297/.425 line) and mediocre defense (a 33-percent caught-stealing rate but −14.0 framing runs) he showed in his lone year with the Rangers. A year removed from tearing apart a disharmonious clubhouse in the name of better chemistry (as well as lower payroll), the Sox felt that Pierzynski’s price also apparently outweighed his reputation as a clubhouse cancer, or at least one of the game’s least-liked individuals. Via NESN’s Ricky Doyle:
The most obvious risk of signing Pierzynski involves his accompanying baggage. There’s a difference between having a colorful personality and having a personality that evokes disdain, and Pierzynski’s behavior seemingly strikes a chord. According to an August 2012 article on SI.com, Pierzynski has in his career been voted by his opponents as the player they would most like to see beaned (2006), baseball’s meanest player (2011) and baseball’s most hated player (2012). Men’s Journal polled 100 MLB players on various topics in 2012, and 34 percent of respondents voted Pierzynski the most hated player in the game.
Ouch. Though he reportedly struggled to get on the same page as several of the staff’s pitchers in the early going, Pierzynski’s actions beyond the diamond haven’t surfaced as a problem, but his performance has nonetheless been subpar. Defensively, he’s thrown out just 19 percent of would-be base thieves, and while his −4.9 framing runs pales in comparison to Saltalamacchia’s −19.5 for the Marlins, his bat has been lifeless. He’s set career worsts in both on-base and slugging percentage while batting .254/.286/.348 with four homers. His 76 OPS+ is a career worst as well, and while several current Red Sox — Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and backup catcher David Ross among them — have been even less productive, all have longer histories in Boston, with Ross and Drew the only ones not under club control beyond 2014.
Furthermore, the organization is deep in catching, with not one but two legitimate prospects. Taking Pierzynski’s spot on the roster, and set to make his major league debut on Wednesday night, is the 23-year-old Vazquez, a 2008 ninth-round pick from Puerto Rico. Last year at Double-A Portland, Vazquez not only hit .289/.376/.395, but he also drew raves for his patience at the plate as well as his work behind it, including his handling of the pitching staff and a quick release that enabled him to nab 47 percent of would-be base thieves. This year at Triple-A Pawtucket, he’s hit .279/.336/.385 and cut down 40 percent of runners. Via the Boston Globe’s Steve Silva, here’s what manager John Farrell had to say about his promotion:
“For those who have not seen Christian Vazquez, this is a compact, quick, exceptional throwing arm,” Farrell said. “He’s a shutdown catcher in terms of the running game. Over the past year and half, he’s really developed as far as the offensive side at the levels he’s been at. Is he going to be more of an impact defender at this point? Yes, with ability to handle the bat. And that means the ability to hit and run. He’s got some occasional power to his pull side. So this is an opportunity to take a look at a kid who could be a frontline catcher for a number of years in the big leagues.”
Taking Vazquez’s place at Portland this year — and possibly poised to climb to Pawtucket in the wake of Vazquez’s promotion — is 22-year-old Blake Swihart, a first-round pick from 2011 who has the potential to be a legitimate two-way catcher. The switch-hitting Swihart hit .298/.366/.428 at High-A Salem last year while cutting down 42 percent of would-be thieves; he’s improved that to .294/.347/.474 with nine homers and a 53-percent caught-stealing rate at Double-A. Talent evaluators are higher on him than Vazquez, who didn’t make any of the major prospect lists; Swihart ranked 73rd on those of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, and jumped to 22nd on the latter’s midseason list earlier this week, with writer Chris Mellen noting that he “has shown strong developmental progress polishing his skills on both sides of the ball… The previous gaze off into the horizon of a potential first-division regular is rapidly becoming a reality, which is driving this prospect’s sizable jump up the rankings.”
Swihart isn’t even on the 40-man roster, so seeing him before the end of the season isn’t likely, but Vazquez figures to share time with the 36-year-old Ross, who has hit just .176/.236/.373 with five homers. Despite those numbers, the latter’s long track record as a solid backup could make him a candidate to be dealt, with the team possibly giving his reps to Pawtucket denizen Dan Butler, a 27-year-old with the solid defense and on-base skills that could buy him a career as a major league backup.
Pierzynski isn’t the only Red Sox player who figures to be on his way out in the coming weeks. Jake Peavy has been the subject of trade rumors lately, and Drew is completely expendable given that the team is bursting at the seams with third base options — Brock Holt, Will Middlebrooks, Garin Cecchini — and might hope to reset Xander Bogaerts with a move back to shortstop. Pending free agents Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara would be fits for the rosters of several contenders, and it’s not out of the question that Jon Lester or John Lackey could be dealt; the former is at an impasse with the team over a potential contract extension, while the club holds an option on the latter’s services for the league minimum salary, a byproduct of his missing the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery.
All of which is to say that the Red Sox roster could look very different a month from now as the team carves out space for the likes of Vazquez, outfielder Mookie Betts, pitcher Rubby De La Rosa and others. Pierzynski may be the next to leave town, but he’ll hardly be the last.