White Sox would concede AL Central if A.J. Pierzynski walks

The Chicago White Sox need A.J. Pierzynski’s presence on the field if they hope to contend in 2013. (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

Imagine the New York Yankees without Derek Jeter, the Texas Rangers without Michael Young or the Boston Red Sox without Dustin Pedroia.

Every roster in baseball has that one glue guy who takes pride in being a part of a team and wears it on his sleeve better than anyone. Sometimes it’s the best player and other times it’s a man hitting in the bottom of the order. It can be anyone. For the Chicago White Sox, it’s A.J. Pierzynski.

Few players in the game are smarter, tougher and play the game harder than Pierzynski. Sure, Paul Konerko is the team’s best hitter. Sure Adam Dunn is a home run hitting machine. But remove Pierzynski from the White Sox and you have a big hole that is nearly impossible to replace. This past season, he posted career highs in homers (27), runs (68), slugging percentage (.501), OPS (.827) and tied a career high for RBIs (77). In comparison to every other backstop in the league, only Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer were better overall offensively. And the White Sox lineup needed every bit of it.

Will he repeat those numbers again next season? Probably not, but his career average of .284, high contact rate and left-handed bat is something the White Sox will not find on the free-agent market. They also won’t find a guy who can catch 1,000 innings (11 consecutive years and counting) and make 120 starts behind the plate. Not too many are as durable and dependable as Pierzynski.

Defensively, however, he is nothing special. He is considered one of the best in the game at handling a pitching staff, but everyone reading this article could probably steal a base on him if he’s behind the plate. Of the catchers who qualified, only Russell Martin and Brian McCann had a lower caught-stealing percentage than Pierzynski’s .262. And for those of you that don’t know, Martin just signed for $17 million over two years with Pittsburgh.

All indications this offseason point to first-year general manager Rick Hahn moving on and allowing Tyler Flowers to become the team’s starting catcher. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Flowers after his four years in the White Sox organization, it’s that he is not a starting MLB catcher. He has never hit higher than .213 in a season at the major league level and was inconsistent while in the minors. He is an all-or-nothing hitter and an average fielder. His track record thus far says that doesn’t change any time soon.

There is a chance Hahn comes to his senses, realizes what he has in Flowers and decides to pursue another catcher. The problem with that is free agency is completely empty when it comes to starting-caliber backstops. The best available list includes Miguel Olivo, Kelly Shoppach, Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco. None are significant upgrades over Flowers and would just leave the White Sox with two right-handed hitting catchers. On the trade front, there is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, J.P. Arencibia and John Buck. Only Saltalamacchia makes sense, but it would likely cost the White Sox some of their pitching, which Hahn has already said he would like to keep.

For a team that was supposed to get run over by the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, the White Sox remained with them step for step until the last week of the season. This offseason, we have already seen the Tigers sign Torii Hunter, and they have made it known that they wish to spend money to upgrade their rotation and bullpen. And let’s not forget Victor Martinez will return to the middle of their order in 2013. Unless Hahn is quietly planning some big move, I don’t see the White Sox keeping pace with Tigers without Pierzynski.

The White Sox have three big needs this offseason: a catcher, third baseman and left-handed, middle-of-the-order bat. Re-signing Pierzynski solves two of those three. The market for his services doesn’t appear to exist outside of, maybe, the Texas Rangers, who don’t likely see Geovany Soto as an everyday player. At 36, Pierzynski’s surprise 2012 offensive numbers aren’t likely to be duplicated, so no one will be lining up to pay him based off them. That should only improve the White Sox’s odds on re-signing him. Chicago is the place he has called home the last eight years, so unless a contender blows him away with an offer, why not pursue him?

Something like $16 million over two years would makes sense.

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