Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart “has been told there will be no more experimenting with other positions” in 2017, writes WEEI’s Rob Bradford. His outfield experiment is seemingly over, meaning he’ll return to his original position of catcher and remain there exclusively for the foreseeable future.
Swihart, 25 in April, has long rated as one of the game’s best all-around prospects. However, questions surrounding his defensive prowess (and the presence of many other catchers on the Boston roster) led the Sox to try Swihart in left field last year. However, the experiment proved to be an ill-fated one, as Swihart suffered a severe ankle injury shortly into his first exposure to outfield work and wound up undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the matter.
That injury made the 2016 campaign an abbreviated and disappointing one for Swihart, who finished the year with a lackluster .258/.365/.355 batting line in just 79 Major League plate appearances to go along with a .243/.344/.311 slash in 122 PAs with Triple-A Pawtucket. Despite those offensive struggles and some apparent questions about his defensive capabilities, though, the Red Sox don’t appear to have soured on Swihart. On the contrary, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reported again this week that the Diamondbacks inquired with Boston on both Swihart and Christian Vazquez and found president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski reluctant to deal either young backstop. That leaves the Red Sox with three catching options in 2017 and well beyond, creating for a somewhat uncertain outlook.
As Bradford writes, Sandy Leon will be given the first crack at regular playing time in 2017 as he looks to show that his 2016 breakout is sustainable. Leon finished the season with a sensational .310/.369/.476 batting line in 283 plate appearances, but his bat wilted in the season’s final month. In addition to that, Leon’s .392 average on balls in play appears entirely unsustainable, especially for a player that has such limited speed. Leon batted an incredible .366 on grounders putting him on par with burners like Billy Hamilton and Trea Turner. Meanwhile, the league as a whole batted just .239 on grounders, and one can reasonably expect a player with Leon’s lack of speed to check in below the mean over a larger sample of at-bats.
Nonetheless, Leon thwarted a stellar 41 percent of attempted stolen bases last season, and while he rated as a somewhat below-average pitch framer, per Baseball Prospectus, he has a strong track record in that regard when looking at his minor league career as a whole. At the very least, he could be a sound defensive option that hits from both sides of the plate, and he’s controllable through 2020. Certainly, there’s value in Leon, the question for Dombrowski & Co. is simply how much of his seemingly out-of-the-blue offensive gains in 2016 are sustainable.
Swihart figures to battle with Vazquez to see who will back up Leon to open the season, but if Leon sputters then either of the two promising young understudies could eventually find himself in a more prominent role with the Sox in 2017. Swihart does have a minor league option remaining, so he can be sent down without being exposed to waivers if the Sox wish to get him some more work both behind and at the plate in the wake of his truncated 2016 campaign.
As recently as the 2014-15 offseason, Swihart rated as the game’s No. 17 overall prospect, per Baseball America, who praised him as a potential two-way force behind the dish. Swihart didn’t begin switch-hitting or catching until he was about halfway through high school, and BA’s scouting report noted that the lack of lifetime experience in both regards always created the potential for some growing pains as he got to the upper levels of the minors and into the Major Leagues. “There’s a chance that his aggressive tendencies will be exploited by advanced pitching, which could result in a challenging transition to the big leagues after a lengthy apprenticeship in Pawtucket in 2015,” BA wrote at the time. But Swihart’s overall package of tools and athleticism undoubtedly remain appealing to both the Red Sox and to other organizations. It’s understandable, then, that Dombrowski and his staff aren’t exactly keen on trading him at all, let alone when his value is at a low point.
Vazquez, meanwhile, never generated the same level of prospect fanfare that Swihart did. However, he’s long been touted as one of the best defensive catchers in all of Minor League Baseball, and his superlative glovework gives him a high floor. He’s thrown out 44 percent of attempted base thieves at the Major League level and a similarly impressive 38 percent caught-stealing rate over the life of his minor league career. Vazquez has drawn consistently excellent framing marks throughout his minor league career and is a .273/.339/.379 hitter in 109 Triple-A games. He missed the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery, but the procedure didn’t seem to have an adverse affect on his throwing in 2016, as he caught 19 of 47 runners between the Majors and Triple-A (40.4 percent).
BA’s most recent scouting report on Vazquez cites “sneaky” pop that could yield an annual home-run total in the low double digits, and he did hit 18 homers at Class-A back in 2011, though that’s the lone pro season in which he’s demonstrated significant power, and it’s quite a ways in the rear-view mirror at this point. Still, given his defensive ceiling, Vazquez doesn’t need to be a star at the plate to be a starter in the Majors.
To somewhat crudely sum things up, Leon has had the most success in the Majors, while Swihart has the highest offensive ceiling of the bunch and Vazquez has the best defensive skill-set. The Red Sox will devote countless hours of evaluation to answering this question (and likely have already been doing so for the past year), but let’s see what MLBTR readership thinks on the matter (link to poll for Trade Rumors app users)…