White Sox face tough call on Pierzynski

I bumped into White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf the other day. I was walking out of the team's spring complex. He was walking in.

I told him that I had just interviewed his catcher. Reinsdorf responded by saying something nice about Ramon Castro, the backup. Since I'm a serial mumbler, I figured that he misunderstood me. I clarified that I was talking about A.J. Pierzynski.

Reinsdorf smiled.

I was, as usual, a little slow on the uptake. Pierzynski is in his contract year. Owners aren't inclined to talk much about prominent players when they are in contract years.

Reinsdorf finally relented. "A.J. is one of my favorite players," the owner said. And he left it at that.

That's a pretty apt summation of where matters stand between the White Sox and their star catcher. (Yes, I called him a star.) A.J. likes the White Sox. The White Sox like A.J. But there is nothing guaranteed when it comes to Pierzynski's future on the South Side, even though he hit .300 and played in 138 games last year.

Pierzynski, 33, is set to earn $6.25 million this season. Highly rated prospect Tyler Flowers could replace him in 2011 at the minimum salary. And the White Sox are high on Flowers. For all but the richest teams, such scenarios point toward the departure of veterans, popularity and past contributions be damned.

But Pierzynski is a special case -- because he's a catcher, because he's a left-handed hitter, because he's durable, because he works well with the pitching staff.

And perhaps most importantly: He embodies the team's edgy persona better than any other player on the roster. He is Ozzie Guillen with a chest protector.

It's difficult to imagine him wearing another uniform, isn't it?

"That's what everybody says," the catcher said.

So, yes, Pierzynski has found a home. The White Sox have found a reliable backstop. As long as he has a healthy, productive 2010, the team should bring him back and allow Flowers, 24, a more gradual introduction to the majors. (Think Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada with the Yankees in the late 1990s.)

The marriage has every reason to continue. But I'm not convinced that it will. The sides don't appear to be engaged in serious talks now.

"I'd love to stay here," Pierzynski said over the weekend. "But if it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be, and I'll move on. The game's going to keep going. Chicago's been a special place for me for a long time. At the same time, I have to make a decision that's best for me and my family."

You're probably wondering when I will mention Pierzynski's reputation as one of the most loathed players in the major leagues. OK, fine. I'll do it now ... but only because it's part of his narrative, not because I actually believe it to be true.

The perception of Pierzynski as a professional irritant is outdated. First baseman Paul Konerko said A.J. has "toned down" his act recently. And if Pierzynski were such an awful guy, then why would the ultra-competitive Jake Peavy say that A.J. "prepares as much as anybody" he has ever been around?

Before reliever J.J. Putz signed with the White Sox, he thought Pierzynski was "kind of annoying -- not in a bad way, just a competitive way." Now? Putz calls him "what everybody would like to have" in a catcher.

And if Pierzynski is a lousy teammate, then why has he been traded only once in his career? History will tell you that the Twins had a very good reason to move him after the 2003 season: Joe Mauer was ready.

"When I came here, all you read about was bad things," said Pierzynski, who joined the White Sox after the Giants released him following a rocky 2004 season in San Francisco. "It's nice to come here and prove that, hey, I can exist in a place for a long time. People can like me and all that stuff. That was nice.

"But you've got to perform. No one in this business keeps you around for sentimental reasons. It's about winning."

He should know. Pierzynski has been the everyday catcher for a winning team in seven of the past nine seasons.

Impressive statistic, isn't it? Maybe we shouldn't find it so surprising. Amid the boos and hearsay, we have neglected to look at the numbers in front of us.

Eight big leaguers caught 1,000-plus innings last year. Of that group, only Atlanta's Brian McCann had a better OPS than Pierzynski.

Pierzynski has caught at least 1,000 innings in each of the last eight seasons. Jason Kendall (10) is the only catcher with a longer active streak.

Will those numbers resonate with White Sox officials as they make payroll plans for next year? I don't know. For a team in the nation's third-largest city, the White Sox often behave as if adhering to a mid-market mantra.

Once team officials believe they have procured an internal replacement for a particular player, he doesn't tend to stick around for much longer. It was that way with Aaron Rowand. It was that way with Tadahito Iguchi. It was that way with Jon Garland. It was that way with Joe Crede.

All of them contributed to the World Series champions in 2005. Rowand, Iguchi and Garland were traded away. Crede left as a free agent before last season.

Pierzynski was apparently more important to the White Sox than they were, because he remains in their employ. And that makes sense: It is exceedingly difficult to find a dangerous left-handed hitter who works as well with a pitching staff as Pierzynski does.

The iconoclasm? The interest in professional wrestling? The punch from Michael Barrett?

All secondary.

"He's a button pusher," said Konerko, also entering the final year of his contract. "He's simple in his approach to how he hits and catching. He doesn't spend a whole bunch of time thinking about the game, so he's got a whole bunch of time to think about how to get under somebody's skin.

"And he's good at it. He's honed that craft. But at the end, he's here to win. He's a winner. That's him."