Around the Horn: Catcher
Pierzynski, Ross to split duties; Vazquez, Swihart knocking at door in Minors
With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com will go around the horn to break down each area of the Red Sox, starting with catcher.
BOSTON -- At one of their most vital positions, the Red Sox had to weigh out the long term and the short term this winter, and that led to the departure of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a cornerstone for the team in recent years.
If the Sox had stood pat and retained Saltalamacchia, it likely would have taken a three-year commitment. However, general manager Ben Cherington looked at the state of his farm system and felt confident the team will be able to turn the position over to youngsters within a couple of years.
In other words, what he needed was a short-term solution to pair with backup David Ross, and that led to the arrival of A.J. Pierzynski, a former All-Star and World Series champion, who recently turned 37.
However, Pierzynski is coming off a solid season offensively for the Texas Rangers in which he belted 17 homers, three more than Saltalamacchia. Their OPS (.738 for Saltalamacchia, .722 for Pierzynski) was comparable.
And it's just a one-year deal. In other words, if Pierzynski can just come close to the numbers he put up last season, Boston will feel pretty good about this one-year rental.
The one thing Pierzynski has always been able to do is stay on the field. Over the last 12 seasons, he's played 128 games or more. Pierzynski has worked hard to keep himself on the field.
"You can't take days off. You can't do what you used to be able to do," said Pierzynski. "You can't go and do some of the things off the field that you used to be able to do. You just can't recover as fast. As you get older, you also learn what you like to do and how you can do it and how you can fit it in and how you can kind of mold your day to what you need to get done. That's one of those things that, when you play a long time, you learn about yourself on and off the field."
With a solid backup like Ross, perhaps the Red Sox will try to preserve Pierzynski by giving him more days off than he's had in past years.
"It's hard to predict exactly how it plays out," said Cherington. "Ultimately, [manager] John [Farrell] will make that decision. Basically, what we talked to A.J. about is that we're not looking to be in a strict, typical everyday backup catcher scenario where the backup catcher gets the Sunday afternoon game after the Saturday night game. John wants to be able to match up in ways that he thinks give us the best chance to win.
"We expect A.J. to catch the large majority of the games, but we just really didn't want to put a number on it."
Assuming Ross can stay healthy this season -- he had two concussions last year -- Boston should get pretty good offensive production behind the plate from its two veterans.
And the fact that Pierzynski hits left-handed and Ross hits right-handed will make it easier for Farrell to mix and match at times against the opposing pitcher.
"John wants to be able to manage both guys to keep them strong through the whole season, and to be able to find days that you can get both guys in there that make sense," said Cherington. "We know A.J.'s going to catch a lot more than David will. That's what their roles are."
The Red Sox just about always judge their catching tandem on how well they work with the pitching staff. Ross has few peers in this regard. Pitchers love throwing to him. Pierzynski will try to develop that same trust as he blends in with a new staff for the second straight year. Last season, Pierzynski was a new guy in Texas.
"Well, I've faced all these guys a lot," said Pierzynski. "It's not like I've never faced any of them. I've faced [John] Lackey like 100 times. I think I know what John Lackey throws. I've had [Jake] Peavy [with the White Sox], I've faced [Ryan] Dempster a bunch. I've faced [Jon} Lester a bunch. I've faced a lot of these guys a bunch of times. That helps, but as an opposing player, you know kind of what they're looking for and what they kind of threw.
"Being on the same team is different than competing against them. You have different scouting reports and different strengths and kind of learn what they like to do and how they like to carry themselves on the mound. It's a nonstop learning process as a catcher."
If the Red Sox should have the misfortune of injuries behind the plate, they might have the necessary depth from within for this not to be a disaster.
Ryan Lavarnway has been up and down from the Minors the past three seasons, and it's still unknown what type of player he can be. In 291 at-bats in the Majors, he's a .208 hitter with five homers. The most concerning thing about Lavarnway is that his power has dipped in recent years, even at the Minor League level. Lavarnway has worked hard behind the plate, but he still aims to get better in that area.
The catching prospect who is probably closest to helping the Sox at the Major League level is Christian Vazquez, who has a lightning-quick release and a cannon arm. Vazquez is expected to start this season at Triple-A Pawtucket, where he played one game last year. He has proved to be a decent hitter in the Minors, producing a .739 OPS in 1,752 at-bats.
Red Sox fans hope that Vazquez will someday be paired with Blake Swihart, the best offensive catcher in the system. Boston took Swihart out of high school in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, and he is known for his quick bat on both sides of the plate.
There's no reason to rush Swihart. He is probably still a couple of years from making it to Fenway.
All in all, the Red Sox feel good about their depth behind the plate.