On Pierzynski’s rep, Sanchez’s potential, Grilli’s outlook

Sometimes-brash veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski will be a mentor to Christian Bethancourt, but could play more if the youngster struggles. (AP photo)
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Sometimes-brash veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski will be a mentor to Christian Bethancourt, but could play more if the youngster struggles. (AP photo)

 

You may have heard newly signed Braves backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski was voted the Most Hated Man in Baseball in a survey of 100 major league players by Men’s Journal in 2012. Much of that surely has to do with the fiery veteran never shying from confrontation on the field, and in some cases instigating it.

The man has been in more than his share of on-field brouhahas, and even had a few disagreements with teammates, though to be fair some former teammates also talk about him being a guy they want in the proverbial foxhole with them and a guy who’s been a strong influence on some winning teams.

Sometimes-brash veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski will be a mentor to Christian Bethancourt, but could play more if the youngster struggles. (AP photo)

Sometimes-brash veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski will be a mentor to Christian Bethancourt, but could play more if the youngster struggles. (AP photo)also had some disagreements with teammates, though to be fair a lot of former teammates also talk about him being a guy they’d want in the proverbial foxhole with them and a guy who’s been a strong influence on some winning teams.

Anyway, last week when his one-year, $2 million contract was finalized after he passed a physical, here’s what Pierzynski, 38, had to say about his reputation for being a guy some folks don’t particularly like.

“I can say that if people ask me about people – ‘I like that guy, I don’t like that guy,’ I mean, it’s a two-way street,” he said. “But at the end of the day, look, I’m trying to win the game for my team. I’m trying to do I can for my team. Whatever happens with guys on the other team, I can’t concern myself with that, because there’s nothing I can do to control that. I mean, I guarantee you there’s people you meet every day in your job and you’re like, ‘I really don’t like that guy.’ There’s one difference – you don’t go to the website or a newspaper and say, ‘This person made me mad today.'”

He continued, “The funny thing is, when you ask (people who say they don’t like him), ‘What did he do?’, they never really give an answer. So it’s kind of like, whatever. Like I said, we’ve all done things in our life that we wish we could take back. At the same time I don’t have any regrets of anything I’ve done, I’ve done it the way I had to do to compete and to be a big-league player for a long time.”

Not that the 17-year-veteran doesn’t give a (bleep) what people say about him. He does, at least a little. Because, well….

“It’s hard in the fact that now my kids are older and they ask questions, or they know how to Google-search and they come up with questions, ‘Why did this person say this?’ or whatever,” Pierzynski said. “And you have to explain it to them. At the same time, now it’s kind of become a laugh with me and my family, because there’s no answer for the question you’re asking. I wish I had a better answer.”

“I tell people all the time, I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team win. If you need me to fight the guy, I’ll fight the guy. If you need me to do this, I’ll do whatever it takes. But at the end of the day I want to win the game. And for three hours, I don’t care who’s pitching (for the other team). Mark Buerhle is one of my good friends and when we’re facing him I want to kill him, and then afterwards we’ll go have a beer. For those three hours I want to beat your tail.”

My immediate take on this signing and the potential effect in the clubhouse: I kind of like it. Seriously. Now, hear me out. I’m one of the first people to talk about the importance of team chemistry and what a difference it can make in a 162-game baseball season, and I know that the last thing you want is a strong personality leading folks in the wrong direction, a malcontent casting negativity on a clubhouse, particularly a clubhouse with so many young players who might take their cues from the veterans. That’s bad.

But I don’t get a sense that Pierzysnki is a malcontent or stirs up trouble. I think he’s probably just strong-willed and outspoken, and doesn’t back down. And honestly, I think this team could use a little of his toughness and aggressiveness, if — IF — channeled in the right direction.

And I have a feeling if he’s in a place of his choosing (he signed here, after all) and with someone he respects (he’s known Braves prez of baseball operations John Hart for more than 20 years, since working at his camp in Orlando as a high school player), in a role he understands going in (before signing he talked to Hart, manager Fredi Gonzalez and assistant GM John Coppolella about being a mentor and backup to rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt), that there’s no reason he can’t be a force for good and perhaps help change a culture that, in my opinion, needed to be changed.

We’ll see. If I’m wrong about him, it’ll probably be apparent fairly early on. But if I’m right, this might be a real good fit for the Braves, who wanted to sign a proven catcher to back Bethancourt, but a guy who could step in and catch a whole lot of games if the the kid struggles. The Braves didn’t want to have to turn to Evan Gattis for that; they want Gattis to focus on left field.

Could David Ross have done it? Could he have caught 5-6 games a week if necessary for a stretch or two? I don’t know, but seems doubtful at this stage of his career and after the concussions and all (though Ross would undeniably been a great fit for the clubhouse and guiding young pitchers).

Last year was the first that Pierzynski wasn’t a lineup regular, and perhaps that’s why he had a career-worst offensive season. Not used to the role. He says he welcomes the backup/mentor role now, but I also think he realizes there’s a chance he could end up being something closer to a lineup regular if Bethancourt struggles, and Pierzynski probably is fully confident he could shine again if thrust back into regular duty.

• Why’d Angels trade Ricardo Sanchez? When the Braves added another to their growing stable of young pitchers last week by trading for highly regarded Angels lefty Ricardo Sanchez, some readers wondered why Anaheim – the team is in Anaheim, not L.A. in any way, shape or form – would be willing to trade its No. 3 prospect, a 17-year-old starter, in exchange for a relatively modest package of third baseman Kyle Kubitza and reliever Nate Hyatt.

The Braves believe newly acquired 17-year-old lefty Ricardo Sanchez has top-of-the-rotation potential, but he's probably several years or more from being ready for the majors. (AP photo)

The Braves believe newly acquired 17-year-old lefty Ricardo Sanchez has top-of-the-rotation potential, but he’s probably several years or more from being ready for the majors. (AP photo)

Not to worry, Braves fans. He’s not recovering from TJ surgery and his stock had not slipped. The Angels did it because they were trading from a position of strength and depth – nine of their top 10 prospects were pitchers before the deal – and were looking to acquire a third baseman who might be ready to step in a year from now if David Freese leaves as a free agent after 2015.

The Angels’ own top third-base prospect, Kaleb Cowart, 22, hit just .223 with 28 extra-base hits (six homers), a .295 OBP and a .324 slugging percentage in 487 plate appearances last season in his second year at Double-A Arkansas.

Compare that to Kubitza, 24, who hit .295 with 50 extra-base hits (11 triples, eight homers), a .405 OBP and .470 slugging percentage in his first season at Double-A Mississippi in 2014, his third full pro season since being drafted in the third round of the 2011 draft out of Texas State-San Marcos.

The Angels also wanted to get another power arm in the bullpen after recently trading away Kevin Jepsen and Jairo Diaz. They believe they got a potentially good one for the future in Hyatt, 24, who  had a 2.71 ERA and three saves in 37 appearances at high-A Lynchburg last season, with 73 strikeouts and 27 walks in 63 innings. Hyatt, 24, was a 13th-round pick out of Appalachian State in 2012 and throws in the mid- to upper-90s, averaging 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings overe three minor league seasons.

But the more immediate concern and attraction for the Angels was Kubitza, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder with a line-drive swing. He made significant strides the past couple of years, including an a .380 OPS and .814 OPS at Lynchburg in 2013 followed by a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League that year. But there were still questions among some scouts as to whether he would hit for enough power to be an every-day third baseman in the big leagues or be more suited for a bench job.

And let’s be clear: The other issue with the Braves was they already have Chris Johnson, who’s entering the first season of a three-year, $23.5 million extension that he got from fired GM Frank Wren early last season, an extension that left a lot of folks scratching their heads.

The Braves would’ve traded Johnson this offseason if they found a deal to their liking, but they weren’t willing to eat any of the contract in order to move him, and that’s what teams they talked to were demanding. He had a disappointing year in 2014 after a career-best season in 2013, and the Braves would rather see if Johnson can bounce back in 2015 than eat part of his contract just to get rid of him, then have him possibly go somewhere else and return to something close to 2013 form.

Worst-case scenario, they figure they can have someone else make som starts at third base against righties in 2015, since Johnson still pillaged left-handed last season (.395/.435/.553) even as he struggled mightily after righties (.231/.256/.314). And then they could trade Johnson next winter if he has another bad year, at which point they’d presumably be more willing to eat some of the contract. But for now, he’s the guy and will have a chance to show last year was a just a bad year and that his extension wasn’t the mistake it appears to have been.

Meanwhile, in the Sanchez gained a Venezuelan who was among the top pitchers in the international class of 2013, a guy who signed for $580,000 and would’ve probably gotten more if his fastball velocity had increased before he signed  instead of after. He throws in the mid-90s and has an impressive curveball, and Sanchez made his U.S. pro debut at the tender age of 16 and posted and went on to post a 3.49 ERA in 12 appearances (nine starts) in the Arizona Rookie League while striking out 43 in 38 2/3 innings.

He was originally signed by Lebi Ochoa, who was with the Angels at the time and is now a Braves senior advisor to player development, part of a front office that was overhauled on the scouting and player-development sides after the firings of Wren and assistant GM Bruce Manno near the end of the 2014 season.

Baseball America co-editor John Manuel told me after the trade that he would rate Sanchez “easily” in the Braves’ revamped top-10 prospects list, probably placing him just behind gifted young shortstop prospect Ozhaino Albies, who turned 18 last week and hit a blistering .364 with a .446 OBP and 22 steals in 57 rookie-league games in 2014 in his first pro season.

Albies was rated as BA’s No. 5 Braves prospect a couple of months ago, a list has been shuffled quite a bit this winter with the addition of prospects acquired via trades including pitchers Max Fried from the Padres, Tyrell Jenkins from the Cardinals and now Sanchez. The Braves believe Sanchez has top-of-the-rotation potential, though he is likely several years or more from reaching the major leagues.

The organization’s minor league talent has been sharply upgraded in a busy offseason for Hart, Coppollela and their top scouts, who’ve made building for 2017 and beyond a priority and done so by laying a strong foundation of young major leaguers and top prospects.

 • Grilli ready for setup role: The Braves also finalized their contract last week with Jason Grilli, 38, the former Pirates closer who got a two-year, $8 million deal with a third-year option, the first time the Braves have spent that kind of money for a reliever who’s penciled in for a setup role.

I’ve known Grilli since he was a prospect traded from San Francisco to the Marlins in July 1999 in the deal that sent Livan Hernandez to the Giants. I was covering the Marlins back then, and Grilli made his major league debut  in 2000, giving up 11 hits and four runs in 6 2/3 innings in his debut, a start that was his only appearance that season.

 

Jason Grilli

Jason Grilli

All these years later, following multiple injuries, TJ surgery, major knee surgery and pitching for five other major league teams after the Marlins, Grilli comes to the Braves with a 4.16 ERA, 50 saves, 520 strikeouts and 552 innings under his belt in 446 career appearances (16 starts) over parts of 12 seasons. Included was a 33-save season in 2013, when he posted a 2.70 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 50 innings, easily the best year of his career – at age 36.

He has a real good idea what his role will be with the Braves, and it damn sure won’t be as the closer for as long as Craig Kimbrel is healthy and on the roster. And Grilli is fine with that. After all, most of his career was not spent in the glamorous role of closer.

“I was holding the closer’s role in Pittsburgh for a while,” Grilli said, “but the way I look at it, (innings) 6, 7, 8 and 9, I mean the Kansas City Royals proved to the world that now, the way things are going, carbon copies (in the late innings). You’ve got to close the inning, and bullpens are a bigger emphasis in the game now because you can have more than one closer. It doesn’t mean you can’t be one in the 6th, 7th or 8th, you go in and close your inning and get three outs. That’s the mentality you have to have.

“Does everybody want to be the closer? Absolutely. Everybody wants to wear that crown and title. But if you’re not, sometimes the eighth inning is the harder inning. Sometimes the way the lineup rolls over it doesn’t really matter, you’ve just got to go out and get your three outs and keep the chain rolling. You don’t want to let the team down with any inning that you’re getting.”

Another strong and outspoken personality? I think so. In a clubhouse that didn’t have enough of them last year. Not just loud for the sake of being loud, but guys not shy about approaching a struggling teammate and offering advice without being asked for it, or guys willing to step up and be held accountable during a losing streak and let teammates know that things have to change right away.

I think Grilli can do that in the bullpen, where the Braves have added several experienced relievers, including Grilli and Jim Johnson, who might be able to help the pen avoid some of the slumps that marred an otherwise productive season that featured plenty of youngsters being thrust into some important roles at times.

Are there question marks? Absolutely. The Braves are hoping that Johnson bounces back from an abysmal season, and are confident that Grilli will pitch closer to his 2013 form (last season he pitched better for most of last year than the overall numbers indicated, those stats skewed by a few rough outings early on that jacked up his ERA).

“I’m thankful the Braves are giving me this great opportunity to help with what’s going on here,” Grilli said. “I’m excited to join Kimbrel down there in the bullpen and formulate another good stronghold at the back of the pitching staff.”

Of his age, he said,  “You can buy a used car and if it’s low on mileage people account for that. I’ve missed some time, but I feel really good. Chronologically I’m 38, but the wear and tear on my arm is another thing – I started only for a short stint and I’m a relief pitcher. I’m priding myself into being accountable and dependable down there.”

A call from pitching coach Roger McDowell, an accomplished former big-league reliever himself, made Grilli feel particularly good about the situation that awaits in Atlanta.

“He called me and he was fired up, and that fired me up,” Grilli said. “Obviously you want to go where you’re wanted, but then when you start hearing the staff and his admiration – and from a former player who’s now a coach, too; that speaks volumes. And I’m excited. When you get somebody who’s so passionate about bringing what he’s known, about what you do on the field and what it takes.

“He knows you’re going to have a bad day sometimes and it’s just how you grind through it. I think that’s where the maturity and everything comes in, and having a pitching coach who’s been there and done that, that is exciting. To have his tutelage and to be in an organization that’s been so focused around the importance of pitching, to have a guy like that is going to be huge.”

• I would say let’s close with this one from the great Steve Earle because the Braves believe that someday in the not-too-distant future they will be title contenders. But that would be kind of trite of me to say, wouldn’t it? So just enjoy Steve. Here’s the studio version, and here he’s doing the tune live on an awards show back in ’86.

“SOMEDAY” by Steve Earle

Steve Earlue

Steve Earle

There ain’t a lot that you can do in this town
You drive down to the lake and then you turn back around
You go to school and you learn to read and write
So you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life

Now I work at the fillin’ station on the interstate
And pumpin’ gasoline and countin’ out of state plates
They ask me how far into Memphis, son, and where’s the nearest beer
And they don’t even know there’s a town around here

Someday I’m finally gonna let go
‘Cause I know there’s a better way
And I wanna know what’s over that rainbow
I’m gonna get out of here someday, someday

Now my brother went to college ’cause he played football
I’m still hangin’ round ’cause I’m a little bit small
Then I got me a ’67 Chevy, she’s low and sleek and black
Someday I’ll put her on that interstate and never look back

Someday I’m finally gonna let go
‘Cause I know there’s a better way
And I wanna know what’s over that rainbow
I’m gonna get out of here someday
I’m gonna get out of here someday, someday, someday

 


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