With free agency opening up after midnight, A.J. Pierzynski headlines the White Sox's gang of four. That doesn't necessarily mean he's gone, as Rick Hahn has mentioned every time he's asked.
After all, Pierzynski hit the open market when his previous multi-year deal with the Sox expired. He engaged in talks with other teams, and was a failed phone call away from signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Instead, he connected with Hahn, Hahn heard the terms the Dodgers offered, and, within 10 to 15 minutes, he was able to configure a palatable deal to keep Pierzynski in Chicago.
So there's nothing saying Pierzynski is a goner just because other teams are able to court him. But there is reason to believe this time is different, if only because the rhetoric surrounding Tyler Flowers changed dramatically.
Pierzynski came back for two years after his previous contract expired in 2010 mostly because Flowers' prospect stock deflated. His average dropped from .297 to .220, his walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate shot up. In two September cups of coffee, he was 4-for-27 with 13 strikeouts. His mechanics were a mess and a point of contention with White Sox coaches, which was problematic since scouts still considered him an offense-first catcher.
Flowers wasn't in any shape to take the bulk of the catching duties, and so the Sox had little choice but to turn back to Pierzynski with a last-minute deal. Ever since, Flowers' path to the big leagues mirrors Darrin Jackson's broadcasting career, in that he's trying to build a game from the ground up working beside a guy who has no apparent interest in his improvement.
He persevered and discovered a way around his swing problems by making massive improvements on the defensive side. Now, Flowers has definite major-league skills to hang his mask on. They're not the skills people expected him to have, but credit Flowers with coming up with a workaround. Most players don't or can't.
In the process, he's earned a fair amount of respect from his teammates and his bosses. Hahn in particular has voiced an awful lot of faith in Flowers should he rise to the top of the depth chart for 2013. The latest example came on Tuesday morning, when he told The Mully and Hanley Show on 670 The Score:
"If it came to the point where Tyler was the guy, the primary catcher come 2013 for whatever reason, we have absolute confidence in his ability, in sort of the more important element of the job – sticking to the game plan, the pitch calling, the defensive capabilities and what he can do to enhance the run prevention on the pitching and defensive side of things. Offensively, it’s tough for a young kid when he’s not getting regular at-bats where he can really show what he can do at the big league level. One of the reasons we acquired Tyler was because of the bat. It was probably ahead of the glove at the time when we made the acquisition. We think over a full season of at-bats, you’re going to have a guy who is going to get on base and provide you with some power. The average probably isn’t going to be as high as A.J., but he is going to do some things offensively to help you win."
That's similar to what Jake Peavy, a longtime Flowers fan, said during his post-extension conference call:
"We think the world of Tyler Flowers and believe he can do the job. If he's the man whose number is called, we're going to get behind him, support him, and believe he can do what it takes to be that leader on the field that you have to have from that position."
And Flowers wants regular at-bats to show what he can do. Man, does he want regular at-bats.
Even though his wife gave birth to their first child at the end of August, she gave him consent to play winter ball in order to get into the swing of regular playing time. The idea was for 100 or so at-bats -- until, during the last game of the season, he was the lucky winner of The 3rd Annual Mandatory Hand Injury From A Cleveland Reliever, this one courtesy of Chris Perez. That resulted in a hairline fracture, dashing his Dominican dreams. Instead, he'll wait for the cast to come off and work on his hitting in Georgia.
Flowers told Scott Merkin that he'd be fine backing up Pierzynski if it came to that ... but I don't think he would be OK with that arrangement, and I don't think it's coming to that. On paper, it's an excellent partnership. In practice, Flowers wouldn't get enough practice. If Hahn is anything like Kenny Williams, I don't think he'd sacrifice the best years of Flowers' career for upwards of 150 plate appearances a year, especially if Hahn is telling the media Flowers is better than that.
At this point, it's a lot easier to see Flowers starting than Pierzynski, especially when you factor in the $5 million of savings. But if Hahn was able to strike another 15-minute miracle to bring Pierzynski back, I imagine his attention would turn to trading Flowers. That's another reason to talk him up.