BOSTON -- While insisting they're not yet waving the white flag on the 2014 season, the Red Sox began their transition toward the future in earnest Wednesday with the decision to designate catcher A.J. Pierzynski for assignment and promote Christian Vazquez from Pawtucket.
Pierzynski, 37 -- signed to a one-year, $8.25 million deal last winter -- was brought in to provide offense from the left side and handle much of the catching duties until Vazquez was ready for big league duty.
"A number of the boxes got checked (with Pierzynski) when we had to replace [Jarrod Saltalamacchia],'' said John Farrell.
But after a decent start to the season offensively, Pierzynski slumped badly in recent weeks. Since June 1, over 27 games (25 starts), he had a slash line of .194/.230/.236 with just four RBI in that span.
His last homer came on May 24. For the season, Pierzynski was .254/.286/ .348.
"The offense wasn't there," general manager Ben Cherington said. "I'm not trying to be critical of him. It wasn't any lack of effort on his part. It just wasn't there. When you sign AJ Pierzynski that's what you're hoping, you're hoping for lefthanded offense at a premium position. We felt that was important to the team. If we got it, it would complement the team. . . That lefthanded offense just wasn't there and he knows that."
"It's an opportunity for us to invest in players who are going to be here beyond 2014,'' said Farrell. "While there may be other decisions that are forthcoming, we felt like the place we're going to start with is behind the plate and that brings Christian to us.''
Pierzynski arrived in Boston with the reputation of being a divisive personality, having often been voted as one of the most unpopular players in the game.
Cherington insisted that on Wednesday that Pierzynski wasn't designated for assignment because he was a bad fit in the clubhouse.
"The only thing that was surprising and lacking I guess was the offense wasn't there the way we expected it to be," Cherington said. "Nothing else happened with AJ that we were surprised by. He's always available to play. He always has been his entire career. He probably says something along the way in different ways to make people look cross-eyed at him, but that's nothing new. It's something we expected. We went into the season knowing everything that AJ was and wanting him on the team."
Some veterans, notably John Lackey, seemed to enjoy pitching to Pierzynski. Others -- including Jon Lester and Jake Peavy, the latter of whom had been a teammate in Chicago -- clearly preferred throwing to David Ross.
There were no major blowouts in Pierzynski's half-season, but he did anger the club with some occasions in which he curiously decided not to slide on the bases. He also raised eyebrows in Tampa one night when he took issue with a reporter's assertion that Shane Victorino had laid down a "perfect'' bunt to advance him to second.
"It was a good bunt, not a perfect bunt,'' corrected Pierzynski.
Offensively, Pierzynski continued a career-long trend of being ultra-aggressive at the plate, drawing just 9 walks in 276 plate appearances. He also routinely swung at the first pitch, including an at-bat two weeks ago in Seattle when, after Mariners starter Erasmo Ramirez walked the bases loaded. Pierzysnki grounded out, leaving three teammates stranded and became agitated when asked about his decision postgame.
"It's important to note that . . . we're not pinning [our first-half failures] on A.J. by any means,'' said Farrell. "We felt like there was a player" -- Vazquez -- "ready to step in and get valuable time for this year. That's where the decision started today.''
"It's my dream to be here,'' said Vazquez. "The opportunity is here and I'm going to enjoy it.''
In 66 games at Pawtucket this season, Vazquez was .279/.336/.385 with 3 homers and 20 RBI. He owns a plus-plus throwing arm, having thrown out 40 percent of would-be basestealers this season, and last year, too, splitting time between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland.
Vazquez was thrown directly into the lineup Wednesday, making his major-league debut catching Rubby De La Rosa, his teammate for much of the year with the PawSox, and hitting ninth.
"[We're] high on his abilities, particularly as a defender and the ability to shut down a running game,'' said Farrell of Vazquez. "[He's also] someone who continues to develop as an offensive player.''
"We think Vazquez has gotten to the point where he can help us certainly defensively," Cherington said. "His at-bats over the last six weeks or so have been more consistent and showed a good approach so we think he can help us behind the plate. No. 2 is [this is] also a bit of investment in him and an opportunity for us to find out a little bit more about him as we start looking forward."
He'll be challenged in being tasked with handling a veteran rotation in the middle of the season.
"We don't feel that's a gamble at all,'' said Farrell. "We feel like there's a structure in place that will help ease his transition. There's some familiarity from spring training. We fully expect the time will be split per week with three [games] for Ross and four for Vazquez as a little bit of a guide . . . David Ross' ability to mentor will be part of this, but we're not leaving it solely up to him. But we feel like there's a structure in place that will allow [Vazquez] to ease into this.
"For a young catcher to come to the big leagues, there's a lot on their plate. Getting to know the individual pitchers is different than in spring training because we're [in] midseason now, (and catchers need to understand) game plans and [know] what we're trying to implement. That's where we've got to have communication in between innings, maybe a little more frequently than with a veteran catcher.''
Ross looks forward to working with Vazquez and giving him the benefit of his experience.
"He cares a lot,'' said Ross. "He wants to help the pitchers. It's not just about the hitting, it's not just about catching -- it's about both and I think he's going to be a bright spot for us. I think he's a guy that's about winning first and we're going to be better off for having him.'
"I think it's the in-game stuff I'll help him with the most -- the managing an inning, if you feel like guys are sitting on pitches or not sitting on pitches.''
Ross added that the presence of veterans like Lester, Lackey and, for now, Peavy, will help ease Vazquez's transition.
"They're our best asset,'' Ross said. "I think Christian's going to learn from those guys. John Lackey kind of calls his own game and in essence he'll help guide Christian through a game . . . I think (working with) a veteran staff is going to better (for Vazquez) than a young staff, because they're going to be able to execute and he'll be able to see how swing paths and scouting reports play out.''