White Sox Set A.J. Pierzynski Free

The Chicago White Sox decided yesterday to not offer veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski arbitration. In doing so, they appear to be following the advice of singer-songwriter-tantric-lover Sting, who once famously sang to tepid jazz-rock accompaniment, "If you love somebody, set them free." In explaining the move, GM Kenny Williams told reporters:

We felt that if we did offer arbitration to A.J. and there were [compensation draft] picks involved that it would potentially hurt a guy that is loyal to us and has been a stud behind the plate and brings it every day.

Be that as it may, A.J. is also a stud who will be 35 on Opening Day 2011 and who just suffered through the worst offensive season of his career. What makes such a statement seem all the more awkward is that Williams did offer arbitration to first baseman Paul Konerko (who, arguably, just had his best career offensive year so far) and reliever J.J. Putz (who also had a fine, fine year out of the pen). Where's the respect for them?

Before you jump down Kenny's throat, Sox fans, realize that he does have a point.While the market is flush with slugging first basemen, and there's always a variety of relievers about, tried-and-true catchers like A.J. are in short supply. One might point to the Florida Marlins' recent three-year deal with John Buck (who?) and, of course, the substantial contract that the Detroit Tigers just awarded Victor Martinez. They call it a "premium position" for a reason -- A.J. could, conceivably, get a sweetheart deal somewhere else.

Plus, all three players (Pierzyski, Konerko and Putz) are "Type A" free agents. So the Sox will still have a shot at some good, compensation draft picks if Konerko and Putz opt to go elsewhere. And don't write A.J. off completely -- Willliams could still sign him to a one-year deal at an amount lower than he would have received via arbitration. Pierzynski could even get another extended contract.

Of course, the 300 lb. gorilla in the room is rookie catcher Tyler Flowers. (He's actually 245 lbs. per his Fangraphs page.) The timing may seem perfect to slot the 25-year-old right-handed-hitting slugger into the Sox starting lineup and give him 450 to 500 plate appearances or so to finally prove his mettle. But Flowers struggled mightily at Triple A Charlotte in 2010 and did next to nothing during his September call-up.

Meanwhile, A.J. is, well. A.J. He's "2005 World Series" A.J. He's "get under the skin and into the heads of opposing players" A.J. He's "go-to guy in the clubhouse" A.J. Many believe the comfort of the Sox talented pitching staff depends on having Pierzynski behind the plate for them. And, perhaps most important of all, manager Ozzie Guillen loves A.J. Or so it would seem based on his refusal to bench Pierzynski for any meaningful period of time during his harrowing slumps of this past season.

Basically, it's chemistry vs. aging curve on the South Side. And it will be interesting to see how Kenny Williams plays his next hand in this ongoing game of cards.

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