A.J. Pierzynski signing more about frugality than upgrade for Red Sox
The Red Sox came to terms with catcher A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year deal worth $8.25 million on Tuesday morning, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. The signing marks the unofficial end of fellow free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s three-year run as Boston’s starting catcher. Pierzynski doesn’t necessarily represent an upgrade over Saltalamacchia on the field, but his contract represents a significant savings for the Red Sox without a significant change in projected value at the position.
In his three years as Boston’s primary catcher, Saltalamacchia hit .244/.306/.457 and was worth an average of 1.8 wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference’s WAR statistic. Over those same three seasons, Pierzynski hit .279/.315/.444 and averaged 1.7 bWAR for the White Sox and Rangers. Both spent all three seasons in hitter-friendly home ballparks. Both are unexceptional defenders who refuse to draw walks at the plate.
There are subtle differences between the two. Despite Pierzynski’s career-high 27 home runs in 2012, Saltalamacchia has more power and, believe it or not, draws more walks (Pierzynski has never accumulated more than 23 unintentional walks in his 13 full major league season). Pierzynski, a career .283 hitter, hits for higher averages and is a more consistent presence in the lineup (Saltalamacchia set a career high with 119 games caught in 2013; Pierzynski has caught as many or more games every year since 2005, averaging 127 over that nine-year span).
The primary difference, however, is age. Saltalamacchia won’t be 29 until May, while Pierzynski will be 37 before the end of December. Despite his age and all of the games he has caught (1,631 over the last 13 seasons), the lefthanded-hitting Pierzynski has retained a great deal of his value in recent seasons, and the presence of righty-hitting backup catcher David Ross, who will also be 37 next year, will allow him to reduce his workload a bit. That said, Pierzynski has held his own against lefthanded pitching in recent seasons — .275/.313/.411 over the three seasons mentioned above — so a full-blown platoon won’t be necessary.
There would seem to be less risk in this signing than for your typical 37-year-old catcher. In fact, Pierzynski’s age may prove beneficial for the Red Sox.
In early October, MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes projected Saltalamacchia to receive a four-year, $36 million contract on the open market, that coming before he proved to be the starting catcher on a World Series champion (granted he didn’t hit much in the postseason, and started just two of the six World Series games, but there’s still some added cachet there). ESPN’s Keith Law (cited by Dierkes) wrote in late September that Saltalamacchia could land a four-year deal with an average annual value closer to $10 million. Here’s where the age difference matters most. Because Pierzynski is eight years older than Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox were able to avoid making an expensive four-year investment in a player with limited skills and instead sign a very similar player of nearly identical value for a single year at a lower salary.
That’s a nifty trick. It will be even niftier if, a year from now, Boston can swing an actual upgrade at the position. That could come via the belated emergence of Ryan Lavarnway, who will be 27 by then, the unlikely arrival of top catching prospect Blake Swihart, who will make his Double-A debut in 2014 and may not be ready take over the bulk of the major league job until 2016, or outside help. Given that, this might be the time for the Pirates to offer Russell Martin, who is entering his walk year, an extension.