Just before I started paying attention to baseball and, by default, the Boston Red Sox, the team had undergone a transformation, sliding from a pennant winner to the basement and back.
I missed most of that. When I hopped on the train, Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks were kings, with Dwight Evans providing the steady guidance of a veteran. A lot of older players had already been cast aside, but Bill Buckner was probably more likeable than A.J. Pierzynski.
Blaming everything that’s gone wrong with the 2014 Red Sox on their former catcher would be lazy and probably inaccurate. Pierzynski was (and is) an aging catcher with a less-than-stellar reputation both on defense and in personality — his career highlight for a lot of fans was being punched in the face by Michael Barrett in 2006.
Instead, Pierzynski has unwittingly served as a marker in the sand, documenting the changing tides of the team. When he arrived, he was a stopgap, a veteran presence with plenty of pop left in his bat to keep the Red Sox in contention while younger players worked their way through the system.
The pop seemed to disappear quickly, though. After a decent April and May, when he hit all four of his home runs and his OPS hovered in the .700s, he flat-lined in June — his batting average was .173 that month. And without the defensive ability of the generally liked David Ross, and the maybe-maybe-not-fact that he’s not generally likeable, it was time for A.J. to go. The Red Sox were in last place, the kids were closer to ready and it just wasn’t in the cards anymore to keep him.
So, Pierzynski and his questionable command of the strike zone was designated for assignment, clearing the way for Christian Vazquez to learn the Major League game under the tutelage of Ross. And, coincidentally or not, the Red Sox started winning again. On Sunday, they finished off a sweep of the Royals, running their record to 7-1 since calling up Vazquez.
It’s not all on their new and former catcher, of course — Vazquez only played one of the three games against the Royals. But it’s another reminder that not all last-place teams are created equal. There are your hopeless, depressing squads where nothing’s going right and the season is little more than a race to the last day — Bobby Valentine’s 2012 team, for example. And then there are those where injuries and slumps put the team in a hole, giving a good squad a chance to give some younger guys a chance and build towards an increasingly bright future.
There’s plenty of historical precedent for this kind of transition. One memorable one took place in the same park between 1986 and ’88. The 1986 pennant winners stumbled out of the blocks in 1987, falling to 78-84 and fifth place in the seven-team American League East. But that tumble gave the team a chance to give a lot of quality time to rookies — Greenwell, Burks and Todd Benzinger wound up winning regular jobs, Sam Horn got a quality look and Jody Reed got his first taste of the big leagues.
Meanwhile Buckner, Don Baylor and others were eventually shipped out to clear room for the new guys. By 1988, Burks, Greenwell and Reed were stalwarts, Benzinger was a regular contributor and the Red Sox eventually had another division title by the end of the season.
Here, Pierzynski has been shed, and more (Jake Peavy? Jonny Gomes?) could follow him. In their place, Vazquez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rubby De La Rosa, Brock Holt and even Mookie Betts are being given a shot at starring roles. Watching Holt and Bradley play every day, for example, is no arduous task. For me, that’s a nice night out at the park, or at home on the couch. It’s not hard to envision this as the beginning of something greater for them, or the others.
Short of a miracle comeback this season, this is the ideal situation for the Red Sox, playing for 2015 as the cards don’t come up for the 2014 team. But in the meantime, it all makes 2014 that much more watchable. This isn’t hopeless, it’s just a long trailer for the better days ahead.