EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 24, 2014

Red Sox have oodles of catching depth behind Pierzynski

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — New Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, according to popular perception, won’t be an offensive upgrade over Jarrod Saltalamacchia but should provide an improvement defensively.

Saltalamacchia loved Boston and he wanted to stay And the Red Sox certainly wouldn’t have strapped themselves by signing Saltalamacchia, who inked a three-year, $21-million deal with the Miami Marlins in free agency.

So why did the Red Sox choose the 37-year-old Pierzynski over the 28-year-old Saltalamacchia and what should we expect from the new Sox catcher in his first and probably only year here in Boston?

GM Ben Cherington loves the depth and talent he has at the catching position in the minor leagues — and he should.

The Red Sox have defensive wiz Christian Vazquez who will begin 2014 with Triple-A Pawtucket. Vazquez probably is the single biggest reason the Red Sox did not bring back Saltalamacchia and is the odds-on favorite to be Boston’s 2015 Opening Day catcher.

Why re-sign Saltalamacchia for three years when the future longterm solution is believed to be only one year away?

Instead, Cherington added Pierzynski, an adequate replacement for Saltalamacchia, on a one-year deal. Pierzynski essentially is a stopgap (a bridge) to next year.

Vazquez has a cannon for an arm and also showed vast improvement offensively last summer. He was 5 for 10 with a homer, three RBIs and two walks in Red Sox big league camp this spring before being optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.

Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said last year about Vazquez, “His quick feet and release allow his arm strength to play as effectively as it does, as well as allowing him to be an above average blocker.”

Don’t be surprised if Vazquez, especially if he plays well early in Pawtucket, earns a promotion to Boston instead of Ryan Lavarnway if either Pierzynski or David Ross suffers an injury and lands on the DL this summer.

Cherington also really likes Dan Butler, a 27-year-old strong defensive catcher who was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket yesterday, and 21-year-old Blake Swihart, a 2011 first-round selection who batted .298 with a .366 on-base percentage for Single-A Salem last year and should start 2014 with Double-A Portland. Both are two more reasons Cherington let Saltalamacchia walk.

Butler, like Vazquez, has the potential to receive a call-up to Boston this year. Both already are on the 40-man roster.

As for Pierzynski, he will be an adequate replacement for one year and should not be as much of a downgrade offensively as some might think.

Many are quick to point out Pierzynski’s impatience in the batter’s box. That’s true. He walked only 11 times in 529 plate appearances for Texas last year and has a .322 career on-base percentage. But let’s remember Saltalamacchia — who struck out 139 times each of the past two seasons — isn’t the epitome of patience with a .310 career on-base percentage, although he did post a better OBP last year (.338).

Pierzynski won’t approach Saltalamacchia’s 40 double total in 2013. But the new Sox catcher has pop. A 2012 Silver Slugger winner, he has homered 44 times combined over the past two seasons.

Pierzynski, a left-handed hitter, will be about the equivalent of a platoon complement with the right-handed hitting Ross as was Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitter who bats much better from the left side.

Catchers defense, meanwhile, is difficult to quantify but Pierzynski has helped his pitchers record a better ERA in 16 major league seasons than Saltalamacchia has in seven major league seasons. Pierzynski’s pitchers posted a strong 3.60 ERA last year and the catcher threw out 33 percent of base stealers — much better than Saltalamacchia’s 21 percent.

Both Pierzynski and Ross will share playing time. And although Pierzynski should start more games, expect Ross to play a good amount.

Rest of the system

Swihart might be the catching prospect with the most potential and eventually could complement Vazquez quite well.

The switch-hitter ranked as the No. 1 catcher in the 2011 draft by Baseball America, and he received the richest bonus Theo Epstein ever gave a high school draft pick while GM of the Red Sox. Swihart also won Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year award for 2013.

Jon Denney, another catcher in the system, was arrested earlier in spring training for driving with a suspended license and acting belligerent with the police. His license had been suspended because of “restricted for business and emergency purposes” for a previous DUI arrest.

Before the incident, Denney was considered an elite prospect and that doesn’t change much, although there’s reason to be concerned about his choices and behavior. He was ranked the 20th best prospect in last year’s draft.

Let’s hope the Red Sox continue to take a tough approach with Denney. Last reported, they were putting together a program for him.

Lavarnway, meanwhile, might end up getting traded. He hasn’t showed the improvement defensively to be thought of as a future starting major league catcher. Lavarnway hit 32 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2011, but he since has seen a significant drop off in power, too.

If the Red Sox keep him, he could end up playing more first base than catcher for Pawtucket with both Vazquez and Butler at Triple-A.

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Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB