Grappling with A.J. Pierzynski’s departure


For a moment there, and in one specific sense, the departure of AJ Pierzynski from the White Sox–from their roster, but also from the culture and popular conception of the team–brought relief. Once more, there can be a discussion of catcher performance that is not colored by the affection and reverence that Pierzynski has purchased with eight years of service, and all the moments they contained.

Except that’s not true, not true at all. The only way to shake away the memories of someone like Pierzynski, who is imbued with the status of being a winner due to his role in the greatest triumphs in franchise history, is to win without him, and Tyler Flowers is no position to deliver that all by himself.

Yet he might have to.

The White Sox, with an off-season missing anything besides a return of the top four members of last year’s Opening Day pitching staff and a stopgap to fill their troublesome 3rd base void, have not made any outside upgrades to their 2013 club. That casts a harsher light on potential upgrades from within, and draws even more attention to the fact that Flowers–with his plus power, good patience, superior defensive footwork, and garish strikeout rate that will make league-average offensive performance his sisiphean mountain–probably won’t be one.

A.J. Pierzynski just delivered the greatest season of his career. A season that at age 35 saw him hit a career-high total of home runs, and even improve his basestealing deterrence–and all he was able to do was flag down a $1.5 million raise, with no commitment to pay him to play baseball beyond 2013. The White Sox letting A.J. walk is therefore hard to see as a financial issue, at least entirely, and it’s hard to see it as a Tyler Flowers issue, since he’s capable but hardly a Travis D’Arnaud-type prospect whose skill demands for room to be cleared.

What’s at work here is something apart from simple talent evaluation. 36 year-old catchers get kicked to the curb all the time, but the White Sox are hardly a team that can claim to be naturally wary of veterans. There was plenty of radio chatter on Friday playing up the notion that Pierzynski had become too widely loathed in the Sox clubhouse to go on, but such concerns could only play up in an off-season such as this one, where winning the 2013 division title has been treated as a goal too unlikely to be worth pursuing aggressively.

But they’re still pursuing it. Somehow.

Pierzynski’s departure was hardly a shock, but the vague possibility that he would return lingered all the way up to Thursday afternoon’s announcement because the Sox have yet to define a firm direction for next season. They’re sort of rebuilding, since they’ve finally made a point to have been building and protecting their farm system, and they’re sort of competing, since they re-signed Jake Peavy, but like with any good compromise, both sides have been left unfulfilled.

I am tempted to applaud the decision. The tools Tyler Flowers has are appealing, and until 2012, figured to offer more boom (and bust) potential than Pierzynski’s M.O of slapping singles to right field and struggling mightily to block pitches. Flowers deserves an opportunity, had waited plenty long for one, and seemed ready to make the situation unworkable if he did not receive it.

But now that he will, and the Sox will still lack the tools to escape the same 79-88 win loop of the last six years, and will still be waiting out the contracts of their aging and depreciating offensive core, people are going to start to wonder why they couldn’t just have their favorite player back.