Flowers caught in a tough situation replacing A.J.
Sox backstop has unenviable task of following popular Pierzynski
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Opening Day plans already have been formulated by Tyler Flowers, despite the White Sox playing host to the Royals still some six weeks away.
And Flowers knows one thing for certain. When his name is announced during pregame ceremonies and he jogs out onto U.S. Cellular Field before what should be a capacity crowd, he will be guaranteed to hear at least a few cheers.
"There's a bunch of people coming," said a smiling Flowers, including his parents and his wife, Nancy, among the list of friends and family members who plan to witness his first Opening Day start. "So at least 20 people will be cheering for me."
Flowers has been playing professional baseball since 2006, working his way into coveted prospect status with Atlanta by the time the White Sox acquired him as part of the Javier Vazquez trade on Dec. 5, 2008. Handling a hostile crowd doesn't rank on the list of new items for Flowers, but those jeers rarely if ever are expected at home.
Then again, the 2013 season begins with Flowers in an almost unwinnable situation. The first pitch he catches from Chris Sale or Jake Peavy officially brings an end to the A.J. Pierzynski era on the South Side of Chicago, putting that exciting eight-year volume into the franchise archives next to the Mark Buehrle, Aaron Rowand and Jermaine Dye eras.
Pierzynski added a gritty edge to the team, ready and willing to play every day. He swiped first base in Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series, took a punch from Michael Barrett during a 2006 game against the Cubs, and, most important, played an integral part on the '05 World Series champions. A 4-for-4 effort from Flowers in that first game against the Royals would certainly help erase the disappointment of the White Sox fan base over one of their favorites departing.
An 0-for-9 or 0-for-10 start to the season for Flowers puts the critics in full throat. It's an added source of outside pressure that Flowers doesn't exactly need as he tries to establish himself behind the plate.
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, manager Robin Ventura and everyone throughout the organization understand the inherent hot seat formed by replacing Pierzynski. Hahn still hopes the bigger picture gets viewed in regard to Flowers, working past his expected high strikeout total and an average that probably won't match Pierzynski's number usually in the .280s.
"I do fear some of the contributions Tyler makes, such as his ability to call the game, get the most out of the pitching staff, control the running game, stick to the scouting report and execute our gameplan, as well as his ability to take a walk or to a lesser extent hit a home run, because people will see that, a lot of it is going to be subtle," said Hahn. "Therefore, when the strikeouts mount up, people perhaps might be critical of him because they can't see his contributions so clearly.
"I'm not really worried about us, our evaluations or how he's received in the clubhouse and by the pitching staff, which I think is going to be great. It's more I'd hope we can keep any public hits on his performance from his mind because I don't think it's fair.
"No matter the position, no matter the player, when you replace someone who took on close to, if not, iconic status within an organization, it's tough to be that next guy," Hahn said. "That's hard for anybody."
Whatever worry exists outside the White Sox concerning the Flowers-for-Pierzynski tradeoff certainly hasn't found its way into the clubhouse. With no offense to their previous catcher, White Sox pitchers have talked about how much they like throwing to Flowers. Pitchers such as Matt Lindstrom and Hector Santiago actually threw to Flowers before camp began, with Flowers arriving 10 days before it started.
There might be intangibles missing from Flowers' game, such as the relationship Pierzynski built up with umpires from working 15 years behind the plate. On the flipside, Flowers knew some of the younger men in blue promoted to the big leagues from his time spent in Triple-A.
"I don't know if A.J. knowing the umpires helped or hurt us," said White Sox reliever Jesse Crain, laughing. "Umpires are very good. They are professional. For the most part, they don't have a bias between different guys out there. If they do, the pitcher is as big of a part of that as the catcher."
"I'm pretty easy to get along with," Flowers said. "As a catcher, I pride myself to be able to communicate not just for the benefit of me hitting, but the benefit of the pitcher on the mound to get calls."
That easygoing nature will benefit Flowers through the transition turmoil. Of course, the inevitable slump or two and the ensuing getting decked from the outside eventually will get to him at some level, but he's ready to handle such a problem.
During the offseason, Flowers saw a comment harshly criticizing his offense at the bottom of a story, so he just stopped reading articles.
"It's really something you can't control. I don't take it personally -- yet," Flowers said. "It just has to do with losing a great player and that's just how it ended up working out."
Flowers thoroughly studied White Sox pitchers as a backup last year and worked with Pierzynski and the staff to prepare for this job. If he plays the way he is capable, the fans will come around.
In the interim, Flowers has prepped his wife for what could transpire in that first at-bat.
"Yeah, I don't know which way that one is going to go," Flowers said. "I think I'm going to put her up in the suite Opening Day so she doesn't get into any fights. Losing A.J. is a big deal, but as far as me going in and replacing him, I think I'm going to be fine."