Friday, December 10, 2010

White Sox Bring Back A.J. Pierzynski

After six seasons of his patented instigation antics behind the plate for the White Sox, A.J. Pierzynski found himself as a free agent for the first time since the end of the 2004 season. To make matter worse, he was coming off his worst offensive performance of the millennium (hey, it's fun to say!) after posting an OPS of just .688. Thankfully for A.J., the crop of free agent catchers wasn't overwhelmingly attractive, perhaps being headlined by the defensively challenged John Buck. Once he was signed away by the Marlins early on, there was little else behind him.

Re-enter Kenny Williams.

With his lone remaining catcher under contract being the light-hitting, defensive minded Ramon Castro, and his best minor league option, Tyler Flowers, struggling at AAA with his plate discipline and defense, Williams made the bold move of bringing Pierzynski back on a back-loaded two-year contract that would prove to be the final domino that remained to fall prior to Williams being able to make his push to re-sign long-time first baseman Paul Konerko.

As with many free-agent signings, this one, at least on it's face, appears to be reasonable. Pierzynski has been worth 2.4 and 1.8 WAR the past two seasons - and at an average of of 4m per season, should easily justify his contract.

But as I highlighted in my review of the Victor Martinez signing by Detroit earlier, catchers have shown a propensity to drop off offensively earlier than their counterparts who play other, less physically demanding positions. That's likely a result of the wear and tear on a players knees and back that a catcher must deal with. Irregardless, it's a fact of life for most players. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the seemingly ageless Jorge Posada who, despite a massive decline in defense the past four seasons, has remained a very solid contributor on offense. But the rare case of an ageless Posada shouldn't cloud our judgement of the manner in which the position as a whole has aged throughout the years, signing Pierzynki - who has just one season with an OPS over .730 in the past four years - is a risk.

Thankfully to say, the risks are at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that the deal is just for two years and rarely has a team been done-in by such a short-term deal. And lets be clear, the White Sox aren't going to suffer significantly even if Pierzynski continues to hit as poorly as he did last year.

Rather, my concerns on this signing are rather nuanced. But that doesn't make them any less relevant.
First of all, I question the need to go to two years. How many other teams were in on the bidding? It's always tough to say, but from reports, the only team that seemed to have clear interest was the Blue Jays (whom the aforementioned Buck was departing). But when we look at the Jays, we see that they have a solid MLB-ready prospect in J.P. Arencibia and another in Travis D'Arnaud who is probably only one or two years off. 

Beyond the Blue Jays, there are very few teams with an obvious need at the position (the Red Sox, Dodgers, and maybe the Mariners stand/stood out) and even then, the number of relatively comparable players seems to outstrip demand. Indeed, the Mariners just signed former White Sox catcher Miguel Olivo - who is two years younger than Pierzynski, who has been both a better offensive player the past two years, and a much better defender throughout his career - for a million dollars less.

Was signing Pierzynski to a two year deal really necessary? Doubtful.

Furthermore, was Pierzynski really the best available option? As the signing of Olivo points out, probably not. I question whether he's even better than the man who will be backing him up. Let's be certain, Castro is probably not quite the caliber of offensive player that Pierzynski is, but he's not particularly worse and he's almost certainly a somewhat better defensive option as baserunners have stolen on Pierzysnki with near impunity the past three years, swiping 270 total bases at a 78% success rate.

Of course, there are other factors to consider. Pierzynski is a tenured member of the White Sox, a veteran of their World Series run (a "proven winner"), and a legitimate warrior behind the plate as he's donned the tools of ignorance more times than any catcher in baseball the past three seasons. He's also a major pain-in-the-ass for the opposing teams hitters.

Will the signing of AJ likely prove worthwhile? Probably. After all, even while experiencing his worst offensive year of this millennium (yup, still fun to say) he was worth 1.8 WAR. More than enough to justify an average yearly salary of 4m. And perhaps that's all that should matter. But for me, the little things matter. And there are little things about this deal that I just don't like.

I think the Sox could've done better. And could've done better for less.

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