Let’s be honest, the public image of new Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski is that he’s a pain in the butt. He has tangled with teammates and opponents over the course of his 16-year career and built a reputation for being irksome.
Pierzynski throws his helmet, he curses, and he talks trash. He is known to be an avid fan of pro wrestling and he enjoys playing the heel. In the oh-so-sensitive world of baseball, Pierzynski makes waves.
It won’t take you long to find YouTube.clips of him brawling or the poll from Men’s Journal in 2012 that named him the most hated player in baseball.
But that’s a simple-minded approach. The guess is that the Red Sox looked well beyond Google in assessing whether Pierzynski would fit into their clubhouse.
Pierzynski played five years with David Ortiz when both were with the Twins and is a player Ortiz has long spoken highly of as a teammate.
Jake Peavy and Koji Uehara also played with Pierzynski. Peavy, in fact, once had a little dust-up with Pierzynski in 2011. You can be sure the Red Sox checked in with Peavy on this.
Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves was with the White Sox for five years as bullpen coach when Pierzynski was their primary catcher. Nieves offered a strong recommendation, according to insiders.
Nieves wields considerable influence in the Red Sox’ decision-making process, something that was evident in the deals for Matt Thornton and Peavy. There is little chance the Red Sox would have signed a catcher their pitching coach thought was a bad guy.
The Red Sox just won the World Series and have a team of veterans, including tone-setters like Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. In John Farrell, they also have an authoritative manager with a low threshold for nonsense. Pierzynski’s personality likely won’t be an issue, and if it becomes one, it’ll be settled quickly.
Pierzynski also has a reputation for intelligence, durability, playing hard, and playing to win. That sounds a lot like the players Ben Cherington gathered up last winter.
The bigger story here is the signal Cherington is sending. In refusing to sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia for three seasons, the general manager is showing faith in a farm system that is making a significant impact on the franchise.
In Pierzynski and David Ross, the Red Sox will start next season with two 37-year-old catchers signed for one year. For 23-year-old Christian Vazquez, 27-year-old Dan Butler, and 21-year-old Blake Swihart, opportunity is their Christmas gift. The Red Sox clearly believe Vazquez can become their catcher by 2015.
For 26-year-old Ryan Lavarnway, however, it’s another roadblock. He has little left to prove in Triple A and seemingly no place on the major league roster. The Sox should do Lavarnway a favor and trade him. But he could linger as insurance.
The next step for the Red Sox should be the return of Mike Napoli. Now that they’re set at catcher, more moves are coming.