A.J. Pierzynski loves playing for the White Sox having spent the last 8 years in Chicago’s south side. But when talking about where he would like to end up as a free agent this offseason, the 35 year old Pierzynski specifically mentioned two teams in addition to the White Sox: the Atlanta Braves, his favorite team growing up, who Pierzynski acknowledges are not an option thanks to the presence of Brian McCann in Atlanta, and the Tampa Bay Rays, who play their home games not far from where Pierzynski attended high school in Orlando. Especially given their need to find offense at the catcher position, could the Rays bring Pierzynski home to Florida to be their starting catcher next season?
Pierzynski enjoyed a big season in his walk-year in 2012, posting a .278/.326/.501 line (118 OPS+) with 27 home runs, easily his career-high in 12 full major league seasons. The problem for Pierzynski is that teams know that giving a long-term contract to a catcher in his mid-30’s is not a good proposition. Instead, Pierzynski will be looking for a one- or two-year deal. A one-year deal may even be more likely because teams know that Pierzynski, who managed just 30 home runs combined from 2009 to 2011, is unlikely to repeat his unlikely power performance. Pierzynski is a career .284/.329/.429 hitter (96 OPS+) with an average of 27 doubles and 13 home runs per season, and teams will expect him to regress towards that next season. Pierzynski has also never been a great defensive catcher, managing just a 28% career caught stealing percentage including a career-low 25% in 2012. Pierzynski has ranged between 25% and 33% in terms of CS rate his entire career. Pierzynski also allowed 8 passed balls in 2012, his most since 2007. He has averaged 6.5 per season in his career including 5.4 per season since 2008, a rate of one every 23.3 games compared to the league average of one every 13.3 games, so he is well above-average in that regard.
In terms of starting catcher and backup catcher pairings, Pierzynski and Jose Molina could be perfect. Pierzynski is a left-handed hitter while Molina is a right-handed hitter, with both being significantly better over the course of their careers against pitchers of the opposite side. Pierzynski doesn’t throw out basestealers at a great rate while Molina does but Pierzynski is much better than Molina in terms of blocking balls in the dirt. Pierzynski and Molina complement each other perfectly, and of course the most important factor is that signing Pierzynski would allow the Rays to slide Jose Molina back into the backup catcher position where he’s most comfortable after he appeared in a career-high 102 games in 2012. The one-year experiment with Molina as a starting catcher did not go so well. Pierzynski is not the Rays’ ideal starting catcher, but he’s a nice hitter for a catcher and a solid defender, and he would represent a significant upgrade for the Rays at the catcher position in 2013.
At the end of the day, a union between Pierzynski and the Rays comes down to the number of years and the annual value in a possible contract. Pierzynski made 6 million dollars in 2012 in the second year of a 2-year, 8 million dollar contract. The Rays could offer Pierzynski essentially the same contract, 2-years and 8 million dollars, although likely 4 million dollars each year instead of 2 million then 6 million, and of course we know that the Rays would add a team option at the end like they do so often. Alternatively, they could offer him a 1-year commitment worth the same 6 million dollars in 2012, although after Luke Scott and Carlos Pena did not work out for them in 2012, they would prefer to avoid that. It’s kind of ironic for Pierzynski that his career-best power performance in his walk season won’t really add to his contract value over the next two years because of his age and position, but that could work out perfectly for the Rays.
Pierzynski has played for the White Sox for a long time now and they assuredly have more money to spend than the Rays. The most likely scenario this offseason is that the Rays offer Pierzynski something like a 2-year, 8 million dollar contract and then the White Sox match the Rays, keeping Pierzynski in Chicago for two more years. Even then, though, that could work out fine for the Rays as they could be interested in White Sox catchers Tyler Flowers (who would take over as the starter for the White Sox should Pierzynski leave) and Josh Phegley, and another multi-year pact to Pierzynski could finally prompt the White Sox to trade one of them. Don’t be surprised if a former White Sox catcher plays for the Rays in 2013- but the chances of Pierzynski being that player are not so high.