Part of the reason the 2013 season was so amazing was because it felt like every move Ben Cherington made ended up in the best-case scenario. Shane Victorino had a bounce-back season that earned him MVP votes, Jonny Gomes was the perfect spark off the bench, Mike Napoli immediately fit right into the Boston culture, and Stephen Drew's bat and glove were a huge part of the championship run. Coming off a year like that, it can be easy to forget just how rare a season like that is. Typically, a good chunk of the moves made in the offseason won't work out, especially the ones for cheap, one-year deals. When they don't go according to plan, it's too easy to turn around and call it a mistake. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that jazz.
Enter: The A.J. Pierzynski signing. As we all know, it turned out to be a horrible fit, as he never played up to his capabilities and was finally put out of his misery earlier this week, being designated for assignment. It's easy to stand up and say Cherington made a mistake by signing the veteran catcher, but looking back, it is still a move that made plenty of sense.
Rewind back to this winter for a second. Boston's roster wasn't completely set at the start of the offseason, but it was pretty damn close. Between returning veterans and up-and-coming rookies, mostly every position on the diamond was filled. The one spot that was a definite need, though, was behind the plate. The Red Sox decided to let the incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia pursue new opportunities after hitting .244/.306/.457 (104 OPS+) in three years starting here. They first opted not to extend him a qualifying offer, a move that was questionable at the time, before we learned just how much teams were valuing their draft picks. After that decision, he found that he could get multiple years on the open market, and the front office decided they wanted to go in another direction because of that, limiting their options a bit.
Of course, the reason the team wanted to stick to short-term options behind the plate was because they have some young catchers coming up through the farm system who they have a ton of confidence in. Specifically, they loved Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, with the former having a chance to contribute at some point in 2014. Unfortunately for the front office, they couldn't hand the job to Vazquez to start the year, as he'd had just a single game of experience at the AAA level. They needed to get a stopgap, or "placeholder." That left them in a tough situation, giving them just A.J. Pierzynski and Kurt Suzuki as realistic possibilities, with farm-hand Daniel Butler being an unlikely option as well.
Remember, we need to look at this from this past winter. At this point, we know how poorly Pierzynski played in 2014, and how well Suzuki has played thus far. To wit, the former wound up with a .254/.286/.348 (76 OPS+), while the latter is hitting .307/.362/.397 (112 OPS+). Suzuki signed with Minnesota this past offseason for one year and $2.75 million, while Pierzynski got $8.25 million for his one year. Looking at their three seasons prior to signing these deals, though, it's easy to see why one ended up getting significantly more money. Pierzynksi had played in 398 games from 2011 through 2013, racking up 1549 plate appearances while slashing .279/.315/.444 (103 OPS+). Suzuki, on the other hand, had played in 346 games with 1273 plate appearances and a .235/.290/.353 (77 OPS+) batting line. Yes, Suzuki is a better defensive player than Pierzynski, but he isn't quite elite enough to overshadow that huge gap in offensive talent. It's also understandable that they didn't want to go with a career minor-league catcher like Dan Butler, who was coming off a fine season in Pawtucket but had never been expected to be much more than a career backup. To their credit (I guess?), Butler has scuffled in AAA in 2014, hitting just .227/.310/.336 in 252 plate appearances this season.
It's easy to bash the A.J. Pierzynski signing, especially now that he has flamed out and has been let go, but looking back at the time the signing happened, it was a move that made sense. There's an idea that bringing him that type of clubhouse presence ruined a very good thing, but if one guy is able to destroy a clubhouse, maybe the clubhouse wasn't that strong to begin with. His approach at the plate didn't fit well with the Red Sox philosophy, but there weren't really any super-patient catchers available. Yes, this is a move that didn't work out, and Ben Cherington and company will be looking everything over to find out why and try to avoid making the same mistake in the future. The answer may be simpler, though. Sometimes, you hit gold with veterans like Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes. Sometimes, though, you end up with the 2014 A.J. Pierzynski. It sucks, but it happens.