WITH MANAGER John Farrell declaring that his team is “turning the page in terms of investing in young players” during an afternoon radio interview, and then writing out a lineup that featured five rookies, the Red Sox on Wednesday took their first big step toward conceding this as a lost season, designating veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynksi for assignment and promoting prospect Christian Vazquez.
“It’s an opportunity for us to invest in players that will be here beyond 2014,” Farrell said, “and while there may be other decisions forthcoming, we felt like the place we were going to start was behind the plate.”
Other established players had previously been given pink slips as Boston bumbled its way to the basement of the American League East, with Grady Sizemore sent packing in June, then Chris Capuano let go on the first of July. But both of them had played their way out of opportunities, and were being used sparingly when released.
Pierzynksi’s dismissal is no more of a surprise than either of those departures, given the direction the team appears to be headed, but the difference with him is that he remained a regular piece of the Red Sox lineup. He started 60 games behind the plate, and last Saturday, with David Ortiz missing the matinee of a doubleheader, Pierzynski served as the Sox’ designated hitter before catching the nightcap.
He caught Clay Buchholz on Monday, too, though that game proved to be his last in Boston, as David Ross drew the start behind the plate on Tuesday and the Red Sox opted to move on after absorbing their seventh loss in the first eight games of a homestand that continued Wednesday night against the White Sox.
In theory, Ben Cherington, the general manager from Plainfield, N.H., could’ve waited a few more days and tried to trade the 37-year-old Pierzynski over the All-Star break. He could’ve hoped Pierzynski got hot — as he did in a few bursts this season — and enticed a team looking for a battle-tested backstop. But in reality there wasn’t much of a market for a catcher who can barely catch the ball, especially one whose .286 on-base percentage ranked 201st among the 235 big leaguers that entered Wednesday with at least 200 plate appearances this season.
Overall he hit .254, including a .203 average with a .235 on-base percentage during his last month with the club. His last extra-base hit came on June 13 (none in his final 71 plate appearances). His last homer came on May 24 (131 plate appearances ago). And the last runner he caught stealing came on May 30 (followed by 20 straight successful swipes).
The Sox lost the final four contests he caught, and nine of the last 11, to finish 24-36 in the games he started behind the plate. The team was 15-15 otherwise, entering Vazquez’s debut on Wednesday, and its pitching staff was 20 percent worse — its earned run average 4.13 vs. 3.43 — when throwing to Pierzynski instead of Ross.
Pierzynski never looked like the .282 career hitter, or 2012 AL Silver Slugger, that the Sox thought they were signing on a one-year, $8.25 million deal — but even early on there were indications he might live up to his preceding reputation as a not-so-popular player.
On one April getaway day, while the rest of his teammates were in the private parts of the clubhouse readying for their road trip or waiting for the buses, Pierzynski stood by himself, luggage loaded, just killing time. He also had a television remote velcroed to the cooler near his stall, which he’d use it to flip on the tube — typically to ano ther game — and watch while his teammates were elsewhere in Fenway’s recesses or headed home.
His plate approach never fit, and coming into a tight room he always seemed something of a steely, sarcastic, defensive outsider, which was probably pronounced even more because of the way it juxtaposed the presence of the departed Jarrod Saltalamacchia — a pleasant guy who became a leader, didn’t bother with the TV despite occupying the stall that became Pierzysnki’s, and would often give team employees a hug on which way out the door at night.
Now, Pierzynski’s release doesn’t prove the Sox were wrong to let Saltalamacchia walk. Pierzynski was always a stopgap, so his exit simply accelerates the process, and ultimately it’ll be the performance of Vazquez (and, later, Blake Swihart) that decides whether the Cherington was right to avoid a multi-year commitment to Saltalamacchia.
That validation begins immediately, with Farrell saying the plan is for Vazquez to catch four days a week. His defense has been big-league ready for some time, so the Sox are hoping he continues the offensive development that saw him hit .289 last year at Portland, then .279 this year at Pawtucket.
Some growing pains are expected — but that’s OK now. No longer are these Red Sox the defending champions. They may be the reigning champions, the most recent champion, but they began to give up the notion that they’re defending their title on Wednesday. And rightfully so.
When Vazquez became a major leaguer, the Red Sox were four times closer to being in line for next year’s No. 1 draft pick than they were to being No. 1 in their division or No. 2 in the wild card. It’s time to look to 2015. Trade Jake Peavy. Listen on other starters. Empty the bullpen. Move Jonny Gomes. Eat some money and admit a mistake with Stephen Drew.
If they’re not in the plans for next year, there’s no reason to let them impede the future any longer. It cost the club almost $4 million to clear the way for Vazquez. Most of the others will hurt less.
And anything they can do to make next season less painful than this one is worth it.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.