The New York Yankees continue to suggest that their starting catcher is right in front of their eyes. They will either go with folk hero Francisco Cervelli, perennial backup Chris Stewart or an untested Austin Romine. Are the Yankees making a mistake by ignoring free agent A.J. Pierzynski?
Editor’s Note: This column was published about five hours before Pierzynski was signed by the Texas Rangers for one-year, $7 million. All questions and scenarios within remain relevant, now coming from the angle of whether this was a missed opportunity or not and read in the past tense. Hopefully it still provides some value read as such.
When the Yankees failed to counter the Pittsburgh Pirates for Russell Martin‘s services it sent a message that the Yankees were indeed not interested in signing multiyear deals because of their desire to stay below the competitive balance tax threshold in 2014. It was an interesting stance to take with the catcher position because the Yankees did not have an immediate impact player in the system, nor was there a very attractive free agent on the market who wouldn’t cost either more than Martin (such as Mike Napoli, who agreed with the Boston Red Sox for three years, $39 million) or Pierzynski, who was coming off his best offensive performance in his 15-year career.
The Red Sox are now having issues with the Napoli deal and Pierzynski remains available. The 35-year-old catcher is reportedly being pursued by the Texas Rangers as a replacement for Napoli. Pierzynski is coming off a two-year, $8 million contract with the Chicago White Sox where he spent the last eight seasons. But the Yankees according a tweet from CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman are not “excited” with Pierzynski.
According to many, the Yankees disinterest in Pierzynski stems mostly from his defensive inefficiencies. His age and the type of contract he may be seeking could also be sticking points. But, those two aspects should not matter to the Yankees as they’ve been signing older, established veterans on short-term deals with eyes toward 2014 and beyond. Pierzynski has also been known to be hard to handle at times, but how many players have come to the Yankees who were “problems” before and then toed the company line?
The heart of the issue is the defense, so let’s look at Pierzynski’s last three seasons behind the plate first.
There is no denying that Pierzynski’s strength is not behind the plate, but the guy is not exactly the worst catcher out there either. When factored over 1,200 innings, Pierzynski was worth six less runs than the average catcher to his team. He was below league average in range factor per 1200 innings as well.
Pierzynski is not going to gun down many potential base stealers but he was just above league average for 2012 and is just 4 percent worse than league average over the course of his career.
Pierzynski’s eight passed balls in 2012 ranked tied for fifth in the American League with four other backstops, Napoli among them. Notably, Martin had nine passed balls and Stewart had 8. Interesting, because Stewart is only in the discussion because of his defense. So, this begs the question of how much of a downgrade is Pierzynski really to what they received in 2012 from Martin?
Here are Martin’s defensive numbers for the last three seasons.
I’m not seeing a great defensive catcher here. In fact, these guys look eerily similar to each other. Pierzynski actually beat out Martin in fielding percentage, Rdrs/yr and threw out a higher percentage of potential base stealers in 2012. They had identical RF/G numbers last season.
So, this tells me the Yankees were trying to move from an offensive catcher to a defensive catcher no matter what since they balked on Martin. Or, Martin’s price was just too much for the team to accept taking on. Besides his increased home run power, Martin did have an awful offensive display in 2012 and his batting average and OBP declined for the fourth straight season and this is where the Yankees may be missing the boat on Pierzynski.
While he may not reach the numbers he put up in 2012, Pierzynski has been steady with the bat for most of his career. Here is a look at the last three seasons.
No doubt his 2012 season is an outlier and any team in their right mind would not overpay based on his production in 2012, but this is a solid hitting catcher we’re looking at here. Right now, the Yankees need a steady proven player behind the plate. Pierzynski’s lefty swing could play well in Yankee Stadium, though he hasn’t exactly shown it in 119 plate appearances between the old and new Yankee Stadium (same dimensions) as he’s hit just three homers over the small sample.
For comparison’s sake here are Martin’s numbers during the same time period.
Again, is there really much difference? Martin has displayed more consistent power over the last two seasons, but he was not considered any more a power threat than Pierzynski was before both hit over 20 in 2012. Yes, Martin hit 18 homers in 2011, but don’t forget he hit just 25 home runs from 2008-2010. In terms of extra base hits, Pierzynski bests Martin in each season, just as he did in batting average. Pierzynski has remained close to his career average in OBP while Martin’s continues to slide. Pierzynski could come close to the power numbers Martin provided; much more so than the in-house options.
While not perfect (none of the options are), the Yankees could benefit from signing Pierzynski for one or two years of coverage without a large expenditure. This would also provide the Yankees with multiple options for the internal group of catchers. Cervelli or Stewart would be fine as backups to Pierzynski, but I doubt their effectiveness offensively over the long term and neither of them is exactly Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate. They are serviceable.
Signing Pierzynski would allow Romine another season in the minors to catch back up after missing most of the 2012 season due to a back injury. Romine could be the starting catcher at Triple-A, giving the Yankees an idea of what he could provide for 2014 if they were to figure a way to sign Pierzynski for just 2013. If Pierzynski was signed for two seasons, probably something he is looking for, the Yankees may be able to package Romine in a deal (assuming he has a good season of course) for the 2014 season or use him as the backup to Pierzynski that year.
The true key to the Yankees catching situation is Gary Sanchez who doesn’t figure to be ready until 2015 or 2016 depending on how quickly he can continue to climb the ladder. Knowing that Sanchez is the catcher of the future, the Yankees would not need to enter the market next season should they settle on Pierzynski for two years and hope to use Sanchez in 2015. If Sanchez was not ready in 2015, then Romine could hold down the job for a season.
Despite the vow to stick to one-year contracts, the Yankees have shown that for the right person and if the right situation presented itself, they will go to two-years for a deal. They did it for Ichiro Suzuki for much of the same reason as they could with Pierzynski — there are farm hands who will be ready to perform in New York at the specific position come 2015.
Are the Yankees in a position to dismiss the potentially significant increase in offensive production Pierzynski could provide over Cervelli, Stewart or Romine, because of perceived defensive liabilities which we’ve shown to be a bit overblown? Is Pierzynski’s attitude that much of a turnoff? Wouldn’t his fiery attitude actually play well in a veteran clubhouse?
The Yankees may have waited too long to nab Pierzynski as they’d now have to fight it out with the Rangers, who will probably be willing to overspend, since they’ve lost out on just about everyone this offseason. But, the Yankees should look deeper at Pierzynski, if they aren’t already. To completely discount Pierzynski is a mistake, one which could cost the Yankees production behind the plate for up to two seasons.