Former closer Jason Grilli and former All-Star catcher A.J. Pierzysnki are both 38 and prepared to fill less-prominent roles after signing as free agents with the Braves. That doesn’t, however, mean that either is ready to go gentle into that good night. At all.
For instance, consider Grilli’s response Wednesday when asked whether he’s still the same pitcher he was when he recorded 33 saves and 74 strikeouts in 50 innings for the Pirates in 2013: “I like to think so. I’m still doing it and I got a multi-year deal, so they believe in me here. I’m featuring the same thing here.
“I’m 38 years old but I don’t feel it. I work hard in the offseason. I’m not a guy that just putzes around. I want to play this game. I suck the bone marrow out of life and out of baseball. With it, it’s keeping me living, and I live for this game. It’s been a grind for me to get to where I’m at.”
Or consider this from Pierzynski, who has a reputation for rubbing some people the wrong way and was voted the most hated man in baseball in a 2012 Men’s Journal survey of 100 major leaguers: “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.”
Grilli and Pierzynski agreed to contracts two weeks ago, but the deals weren’t official until Wednesday when they came to Atlanta and passed their physicals. Grilli agreed to a two-year, $8 million contract with a third-year option on Dec. 23, while Pierzyski agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal on Christmas Eve.
If things go as the Braves hope, Pierzynski will serve as the backup and mentor to rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt in 2015, while Evan Gattis moves from behind the plate to be the primary left fielder.
If Bethancourt struggles or doesn’t look ready, the Braves wanted to have a backup catcher who could catch a lot of games. They got that with Pierzyski, who turned 38 on Dec. 30 and is coming off his worst offensive season — .251 with five home runs, 37 RBIs and a .625 OPS in 102 games with Boston and St. Louis.
The drop in production was sudden for Pierzynski, who had two of his best seasons in 2012-2013, batting .275 with 91 extra-base hits (44 homers), 147 RBIs and a .462 slugging percentage in 269 games with the White Sox (2012) and Rangers (2013). He won a Silver Slugger Award in a 27-homer season in 2012.
“Quality person – always game on!” said Braves president of baseball operations John Hart, who has known Pierzysnki for more than 20 years, since the catcher was in high school in Orlando and participated in Hart’s annual baseball camp there.
Pierzysnki was released by Boston in mid-July and signed 10 days later by the Cardinals, who needed catching help after Yadier Molina got hurt. He hit .288 with four homers, 27 RBIs and a .417 slugging percentage in 45 games (163 at-bats) through the end of May, but .217 with one homer, 10 RBIs and a .263 slugging percentage in only 57 games (175 at-bats) the rest of the season.
“Look, I’ve done the 130 games a year for a long time,” Pierzynski said. “ Last year when I went to St. Louis was the first time that I didn’t play every day. It was eye-opening. I was like, this can still work, because you still have to find a way to help people when you’re not contributing on the field, and it was cool to go to St. Louis and be able to do that. And then when this opportunity arose here, obviously Bethancourt is the guy that they want to be the catcher. I understand that.
“They want me to help him anyway I can. It’s one of those things where yeah, I’m going to come in and get an opportunity to do whatever I do, but at the end of the day I know that they want Bethancourt to be the guy, and I’m OK with that. Actually I’m looking forward to the opportunity. Physically I can still play every day; I have no limitations as far as not being able to play. But at a certain point in time, you want to also help other people. And they have a kid here who, from everything I’ve heard and everything I’ve seen, is extraordinarily talented.”
Big, durable and generally solid behind the plate, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound left-handed hitter is known for being outspoken and brash. Pierzysnki has drawn both praise and criticism for his effect in various clubhouses over the years and for never shying from confrontation with opponents.
Pierzynski set career-highs in home runs (27), slugging percentage (.501) and OPS (.827) in 2012 in 135 games, including 126 starts at catcher. He only made 80 starts at catcher last season including 20 with the Cardinals.
He has been one of the better-hitting catchers for many of his 17 years (14 full seasons) in the majors, batting .281 with 177 homers, a .320 OBP and .424 slugging percentage in 1,865 games with six teams, more than half of those games in eight seasons with the White Sox. He was an All-Star with the Twins in 2002 and the White Sox in 2006.
Pierzynski had played at least 128 games in 11 consecutive seasons before 2014, and totaled 500 or more plate appearances in 10 of those 11 seasons (497 in the other).
Grilli had a 4.00 ERA and 12 saves in 62 appearances with the Pirates and Angels in 2014, totaling 57 strikeouts and 21 walks in 54 innings. He pitched better after the trade to Anaheim, though his seasonal numbers remained far off his previous two seasons with the Pirates.
In 2012-2013, Grilli compiled a 2.82 ERA and .210 opponents’ average in 118 appearances, with 164 strikeouts and 35 walks in 108 2/3 innings. He was selected to his first All-Star team in 2013, sixteen years after being selected by the Giants with the fourth overall pick of the 1997 draft.
Grilli gives the Braves another eighth-inning option along with a few others including newcomers Jim Johnson, a former major league saves leader with Baltimore, and former Angels reliever Michael Kohn.
“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.”
After being traded to the Angels, Grilli had a 2.12 ERA with 29 strikeouts and seven walks in 29 2/3 innings in 34 appearances through Sept. 9, then gave up six runs in four innings over his final six outings.
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