AS the hot stove has begun to heat up this winter, no position has seen its free agents coveted quite as much as catchers. So as one of the teams still in need of a backstop after the first tier of dominoes fell, the Red Sox acted Tuesday to fill their void before the market was stripped too bare.
And in the process the club simultaneously made the first significant subtraction from the roster that won Boston a World Series just five weeks ago. (An even greater subtraction would occur hours later, with Jacoby Ellsbury agreeing to a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees.)
The Sox reached agreement with veteran A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year contract, according to a variety of reports, opting to pair him with David Ross and go with two catchers who'll be 37 by Opening Day rather than pay 28-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia the three-year, $21 million contract he reportedly received from the Marlins later Tuesday afternoon.
Saltalamacchia was an important piece of Boston's success, playing 121 games in 2013 and ranking third among American League catchers with at least 400 at-bats in batting average (.273), on-base percentage (.338), OPS (.804), and second only to Astros' All-Star Jason Castro in slugging percentage (.466). He set a team record by becoming just the 15th catcher since 1901 to hit 40 doubles, and that was just a year after he threatened to make club history by blasting 25 home runs.
But the message from Ben Cherington and Boston's brass is clear. The Sox believe that Pierzynski can reasonably approximate Saltalamacchia's production both alongside and behind the plate next season, and by getting him on an inexpensive, one-year commitment that option retains their flexibility both now and in the future. In the short-term, they can use the money they save to help fill their remaining holes at first base, in the outfield, and in the bullpen; and in the long-term they haven't blocked the ascension of either Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart, both of whom are in the pipeline and thought to have big-league potential.
The Sox could have just as easily attained the same freedom by giving Ryan Lavarnway an opportunity to share the job with Ross, although there are still doubts about Lavarnway's abilities as a receiver, and Pierzynski presents the team with the assurance of adequacy in all aspects of the role.
He can hit left-handed, which makes for a nice balance with the right-handed Ross. He has a good bat, with 44 homers, 147 RBIs and a .275 average over the past two seasons. He's been durable, having made at least 497 plate appearances for the past 11 seasons. And while he's not a particularly spectacular defensive catcher, keep in mind that Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves was part of the White Sox staff for five years prior to coming to Boston. Pierzynski was Chicago's primary catcher during that time. If there were concerns about his ability to handle a pitching staff or control a game, he wouldn't even have been entertained as an option.
He has a reputation for being a pest to opponents — to the point he has been voted the game's most hated player among his peers — though he's generally well-liked by his teammates. And though there are a few things about his approach that don't necessarily fit in with Boston's business model, such as the fact he walked only 11 times last season, and saw just 3.27 pitches per plate appearance, the Sox are confident he can help them, at least as a stopgap until the 23-year-old Vazquez (a defensive whiz who hit .289 at Double-A last season) is ready.
If the finances were equal, the Sox would probably just as soon re-sign Saltalamacchia, given that Pierzynski doesn't really represent an upgrade. And at least until he lost his starting job for the final three games of the World Series, Saltalamacchia would've probably preferred that, too, given the way the Red Sox rescued him through a 2010 trade with Texas.
"It saved my career," Saltalamacchia said in the clubhouse after the Sox beat the Cardinals. "I was kind of stuck in a spot where I didn't feel I was wanted or needed or going to be able to go anywhere. Then I came over here and it was just night and day. I felt wanted, I felt they knew what I was capable of doing. They actually gave me a chance. I can't thank these guys enough."
He noted that he spent the season "enjoying every pitch," and its final days looking into the stands, and looking at its jersey. "Hopefully I can be back," he said, but ultimately that desire might've been undone by his own success.
Saltalamacchia hit a hefty .372 on balls in play this season, which helped his numbers — but which, in turn, also pushed his value beyond that of the one- or two-year commitment Boston would've likely found more amenable.
So once Ross — the superior defender — proved Saltalamacchia expendable in the postseason, the team chose its course. They didn't make him a qualifying offer, then once Brian McCann, Carlos Ruiz and Dioner Navarro found homes, they grabbed Pierzynski before it was too late.
And with the catching situation resolved, it's now on to other matters of business for Cherington. Logically, Mike Napoli's status is the next item to be resolved, as whether or not he returns will determine whether the team needs a first baseman, and whether Will Middlebrooks is trade bait or the team's best source of right-handed power.
Those evaluations subsequently play into whether Stephen Drew is re-signed, where Xander Bogaerts plays next season, what type of hitter the team needs in the wake of Ellsbury's departure, and what holes the team might seek to fill by trading from its overabundance of big-league starting pitching.
Decisions on those matters could be coming soon, as the hot stove has begun to sizzle, baseball's winter meetings are now less than a week out — and 2013 fades to a memory as 2014 comes into focus.
SOX pitcher John Lackey was named winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award, earning the honor presented by Boston's branch of the Baseball Writers Association of America to a player who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage. Lackey returned from Tommy John surgery to lead Sox qualifiers in ERA (3.52) this season, then picked up the win in the World Series clincher.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.