CLEVELAND -- As the White Sox play out their final 10 games of a disappointing 2011 season, Juan Pierre's tenure on the Chicago's South Side also seems to be coming to a close.
Pierre will become a free agent after the current campaign. And with the White Sox already having $89 million committed to 11 players next year, as well as their "all-in" effort not producing desired results on the field or in the stands, they certainly will be looking for affordable but talented fits where they can.
One question on the docket is whether the end of Pierre's run indicates a White Sox departure from the leadoff hitter that is represented by the left-handed-hitting veteran. In fact, Pierre understands that his specific style at the top of a batting order no longer would be considered prevalent throughout Major League Baseball.
"Most leadoff guys can hit the ball out of the park, and now everybody is playing a more aggressive style of baseball," said Pierre during a recent interview. "There's no taking pitches or trying to let the guy move the ball over as far as the American League goes.
"The National League still does it more. But in the AL, usually the leadoff guys are hitters more than working counts and doing that stuff first and then hitting kind of second."
|"If I don't hit, I'll always be the first one to go or the first one they say should sit down. I see where they are coming from. My game is not in the box scores every day."|
|-- Juan Pierre|
This past weekend at Kauffman Stadium showed off Alex Gordon, who has 17 homers, 28 doubles and 55 RBIs over 358 at-bats as Kansas City's No. 1 man. Then there's AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate Jacoby Ellsbury, whose stat line reads 24 homers, 42 doubles and 88 RBIs, to go with his 35 stolen bases in 568 leadoff at-bats for the Red Sox.
Players such as Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki or the Yankees' Brett Gardner are cut closer to the mold presented by Pierre. Then again, Pierre follows an old-school leadoff style more than almost any player in the game.
Taking pitches, laying down bunts, getting on base consistently, distracting the pitcher while at first base and setting things up for the middle of the order become Pierre's priority. Those goals take precedence over clearing the fences or piling up the extra-base hits, as evidenced by the hard-working Pierre finding greatest pleasure in teammates' success.
"Probably my favorite runs scored are when a guy hits a ground ball or a sacrifice fly, just because I know they want that RBI and it just makes it easy," said Pierre, referring to the specific scenario where he gets on base, works his way to third with less than two outs and scores. "That's why I like giving them better pitches to hit, with the pitcher checking me a couple of times at first or second. I try to relieve the pressure on those big boys."
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen prefers a set leadoff man. He saw the benefits derived as third-base coach of the 2003 World Series champion Marlins with Pierre leading off, and had the same from Scott Podsednik in 2005. During that championship season, Podsednik hit .290 with 25 RBIs and just 29 extra-base hits, but the team would have had a tough time winning without him.
Many a 2005 game featured Podsednik reaching base in the game's opening frame, swiping second, getting moved to third by Tadahito Iguchi and then somehow scoring to put the White Sox ahead early. It was a lead the airtight pitching staff often wouldn't relinquish, thanks to a specific sort of job still held by Pierre that is highly appreciated by teammates.
"You know what you are getting with Juan. When he's on base, he's wreaking havoc," said White Sox starter John Danks, one of numerous Pierre teammates who hold him in high esteem. "Even if he's not stealing bags, he's taking the pitcher's focus away and giving Alexei [Ramirez] or whoever it is hitting in the second hole maybe a better pitch to hit."
Over a limited body of work covering the past two months, for a team on the fringe of playoff contention, Alejandro De Aza has shown himself as an electric talent who could ignite the White Sox offense as the 2012 leadoff man. To fit De Aza in as a starter, either Carlos Quentin or Alex Rios would have to be moved or Dayan Viciedo would have to have a bench role.
Then again, the White Sox could opt for the power package of Quentin in left, Rios in center and Viciedo in right. Who would serve as the White Sox leadoff hitter in the latter instance?
When general manager Ken Williams spoke to MLB.com about Viciedo's Major League preparedness back in early June, pointing to the potential existence of an outfield with Quentin, Rios and Viciedo, he mentioned someone else would have to learn that responsibility. Maybe Gordon Beckham or Ramirez could take over in a world where on-base percentage remains as important as slugging percentage.
Following a slow start to the season, Pierre has posted the eighth-best average in the AL since June 26. The target of criticism in April and May leads the AL in infield hits and will finish with the fourth-highest RBI total on the team, with the knowledge that he did it his way, even if his way isn't always appreciated in these changing times.
"If I don't hit, I'll always be the first one to go or the first one they say should sit down," Pierre said. "I see where they are coming from. My game is not in the box scores every day.
"I'm not driving in the runs or hitting the home runs. The guys that do that, they always have the possibility where they can run off a week where they hit five home runs and drive in runs, and they are back to normal. And nobody cares about their average. I'm just used to it and block it out and try to help the team win."