GLENDALE, Ariz. – A little competition, friendly or unfriendly, never hurt anyone. So if A.J. Pierzynski sees Tyler Flowers sneaking up on him in his rearview mirror, good for the White Sox.
Whether Flowers is on Pierzynski’s bumper or somewhere off in the distance will play itself out this spring and into the season. Pierzynski, 35, is the savvy, left-handed-hitting fan favorite who helped the Sox win a World Series in 2005. He’s also in the final year of a two-year contract. And his throwing – one part of the Sox’ problem with defending the steal in 2011 – has been a topic of conversation at SoxFest and at camp among Sox coaching staffers.
Flowers, 26, is the heir apparent and possibly the 2013 Opening Day starter. He showed flashes of being that when the durable Pierzynski went on the disabled list for the first time last season. But Flowers’ sample size isn’t big enough to assure anybody he’ll hit consistently enough to be a No. 1. He batted .209 with five homers, five doubles and 16 RBI in 110 at-bats, his numbers tailing off after his first 40 at-bats. He threw out six of 24 baserunners, slightly better than Pierzynski’s success rate.
Pierzynski looks at Flowers as just another guy, not a threat.
‘‘We play the same position,” Pierzynski said. ‘‘I don’t think I have much left to prove. I’ve proven what I needed to prove in this game. I’ll continue to go out and do what I can this year and hopefully play a lot. I’ll play when they tell me to play. That’s all I can do. If I’m doing well, I’ll play. If I’m not, they’ll find somebody else. It’s always been like that since the first day you step foot in this field. Nothing’s changed.”
Last spring, Flowers was a long shot to make the team. When backup Ramon Castro was injured, he came up. With Castro gone, he’s assured of a job.
‘‘But nothing is guaranteed,” Flowers said. ‘‘I come out here and don’t perform like I’m capable of and should, then I probably won’t make the team. But I’m confident, feeling healthy and feeling like I’m going to break camp with the White Sox.”
The relationship between Flowers and Pierzynski was icy at times last season. Flowers caught Jake Peavy – who clashed with Pierzynski during a game last season – on Peavy’s Class AAA rehab outings and talked him up. That probably didn’t help. But things are much better now, Flowers said.
‘‘Yeah, we started a little rough,” Flowers said. ‘‘We have a good relationship now. We talk every once in a while during the offseason. We play video games together, too. We’re bonding. We’re all right. It’s getting better.”
Pierzynski’s 1,000 innings caught for 10 consecutive seasons – he’s the only active catcher to have done so – and his work ethic are highly respected in the clubhouse.
‘‘I was lucky to get in last year,” Flowers said. ‘‘The guy works his tail off. If you’ve been around him, he works harder than anyone else I’ve seen. Looking in from the outside, this guy has done something special for the past 10 years, so I need to pick up and learn some stuff from him and hopefully duplicate what he’s done with his career.”
The Sox would take a .284 career average and automatic 1,000 inning-seasons in a heartbeat. Flowers believes if he does what it takes to make the Sox better, he’ll get better.
‘‘This game is an individual game, but it’s a team game,” he said. ‘‘I’ve always felt like if you focus on the team and focus on what you can do to help the team, your individual numbers take care of themselves.”
Pierzynski is the guy he’s pursuing up the individual ladder. And he’s the guy giving Pierzynski a push. Trash talk is expected. It’s the A.J. way.
‘‘I’m sure it will come,” Flowers said. ‘‘He’ll come up with something witty. Usually spring training is the time. Usually we have a confrontation in spring training.”