Friday, January 07, 2005

Nothing to lose with Pierzynski signing

The Sox had two very visible holes left to fill, and recently filled the bigger of the two by inking A.J. Pierzynski to a 1-year, $2.25 million contract.

Pierzynski made $3.5 million last year for the Giants and hit .272 with a .319 OBP and a .410 slugging percentage. All three of those marks were the worst the now 28-year-old catcher has had in the past five years, the last four as a full-time player.

With a career line of .294/.336/.438 in 1,899 at-bats, the former Twin is an obvious upgrade on incumbent Ben Davis (.237/.257/.347 in 1,512 ABs) and Jamie Burke (.331/.379/.398 in 133 ABs).

It’s hard to say why Pierzynski didn’t get more play once he hit the free agent market, but most are chalking it up to character issues. Supposedly, he was disinterested in playing defense or studying film (other than Twins games on TV) during his season by the Bay.

Will that hurt the Sox? Well, probably not as much as playing with a big gaping hole in the lineup would.

Moreover, the Sox got a catcher for relatively cheap. This contract pales in comparison to the 4 years and $40 million dollars the Red Sox gave Jason Varitek. Varitek comes with a better defensive reputation, as well as high marks for leadership, etc. He’s also comes without A.J.’s baggage. But he’s also going to be 33 next year.

The Sox will get Pierzynski’s age-28 season to see if he really is a problem child. The upside is he hits like he did from 2001-03 – which is to say very well. The downside is he plays like he did last year, which is still better than the guys we have, and is a malcontent. In which case, the Sox can trade him or release him, and will still have the same catching situation as they did before signing him.

Very good gamble by GM Kenny Williams.

Sox need to manage Hernandez carefully

Even though it happened weeks ago, lets take a minute to talk about the Sox signing Orlando Hernandez to a 2-year, $8 million contract.

Statheads and baseball laypersons alike greeted this deal with a collective groan. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. Hernandez tossed fewer than 85 innings last year, and the year before missed the entire season because of a shoulder injury.

Hernandez’ best season was his first in MLB, the 1998 season in which he had an ERA of 3.13 in 141 innings with close to a strikeout per inning.

While never quite getting back to that peak, Hernandez had good seasons in 1999 and 2000, during which he averaged 200 innings. He also threw very well before his shoulder problem (3.64 ERA in 2002) and after (last season).

El Duque has been written off by many as being too old (38, at last best guess for this Cuban defector) and too injury-prone to make significant contributions to a contending team. After all, despite what he did for the Yankees over 84.7 innings last year, he still came up with a tired shoulder down the stretch and in the playoffs.

With Hernandez, the upside is clear, but so is the risk involved with counting on him to be a key member of your team’s rotation. If everything goes right, he can give you about 150 innings of No. 2 starter-quality innings. If everything goes wrong, he feels stiffness in his shoulder and watches the next two seasons from home while collecting a paycheck that a team probably can’t ensure.

The Sox are gambling that it will be the former.

Before deciding if this is a good risk or not, lets look at another big factor – the market for players and how its driven salaries.

The Mets kicked off the craze when they inked Kris Benson to a 3-year, $22.5 million contract early in the offseason. Since then, everyone has been onboard with handing out crazy money. Here is a look at the average salaries of the big free agent pitchers signed so far…


2004 ERA+

Career ERA+

2004 IP

Avg. Sal





$4 million

Odalis Perez




$8 million

Jaret Wright




$7 million

Matt Clement




$8.5 million

Carl Pavano




$10 million

Kris Benson




$7.5 million

K Millwood




$7 million*

P Martinez




$13.3 million

Russ Ortiz




$8.25 million

*Reported amount of contract offered by Cleveland

That’s a lot of dough flying around, for nobody that’s really a marquee pitcher, outside of Pedro Martinez. And even he got roughed up a little last year, with a 3.90 ERA. That’s still great, but that’s not the dominance Martinez has demonstrated over the last eight years. That’s trouble, especially considering he comes with his own shoulder concerns.

On the list, nobody else other than Kevin Millwood has come even close to putting up the career numbers that Hernandez has. Only Carl Pavano pitched as well last year, though in all fairness, he was more than twice as valuable because he was healthy all year. But it was also his only superb season.

You could argue that Clement and Benson have upside and both could improve. But both have already had their 30th birthday, so it might be too optimistic to assume they’ll stop walking guys. Millwood collapsed after the All-Star Break of 2003. Wright has big-time health concerns, and worries that he was a Leo Mazzone creation. And Russ Ortiz must have gotten the entire management staff of the Diamondbacks drunk to land that deal for four years (investment in an open bar paid off big time).

Odalis Perez is probably the best long-term solution, having stayed healthy while consistently pitching well. But he won’t exactly be a bargain at that salary over three years.

Many predicted during the season that most of these guys would get contracts for around $5 million per, and there would be a lot of bargains available. That didn’t happen.

So before we decide that the Sox are throwing money away by signing Hernandez, let’s remember that this hasn’t been a year of bargains.

So, will Hernandez help the Sox? That depends on his healthy.

One school of thought is that Hernandez proved he can’t stay healthy when his shoulder gave out down the stretch last year. Another school of though is that he was simply fatigued after carrying the load for the Yankees’ rotation after not pitching in more than a year.

It’s probably a bit of both.

For this to be successful, the Sox will have to avoid the temptation of moving him up in the rotation. Hernandez will have to be babied, meaning he needs to be in the fifth slot of the rotation.

That’s not a bad thing. Garcia, Buehrle, Contreras and Garland can all handle workloads of about 200 innings. The Pale Hose should be concerned with getting about 120 healthy innings from Hernandez. That would represent an unspeakably huge upgrade from the trash the Sox sent out in the fifth spot last year.

Will the Sox, or more specifically manager Ozzie Guillen do things that way? I don’t know. He hasn’t shown a tendency to overwork his starters. In fact, he admitted that it was his bullpen he overworked last season (specifically Neal Cotts and Jon Adkins).

Time will tell this season. And like so many teams, the Sox’ hopes rest on the managers’ ability to handle the pitching staff.