The Red Sox entered Sunday with the majors’ best record (24-9) and second-ranked run differential (plus-62), feats that are all the more impressive when you consider they’ve received almost no offensive production from their catchers. Boston’s backstops, Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon, have combined for a hideous .169/.226/.202 line with no home runs in 134 plate appearances. That amounts to a wRC+ of 15, which falls well short of 29th-place Baltimore’s mark (41).
Given the dreadful starts Vazquez and Leon have gotten off to at the plate, it stands to reason the Red Sox will give the catcher-capable Blake Swihart an opportunity to grab the reins at some point. There aren’t any signs that’s going to happen, however, as Evan Drellich of NBC Sports Boston wrote earlier this week.
Although Swihart was a first-round pick (26th overall) in 2011 and was once among the game’s most heralded catching prospects, he hasn’t been able to establish himself in Boston. The switch-hitter looked to be on his way when he amassed 309 PAs and batted a respectable .274/.319/.392 (93 wRC+) as a rookie in 2015, but he has only come to the plate 106 times since then. Of course, there were obvious causes for Swihart’s lack of MLB time from 2016-17, including nagging ankle problems, major questions about his defense and poor production at Triple-A Pawtucket last season. Meanwhile, at the big league level, Leon enjoyed a breakout year in 2016 to grab hold of the Red Sox’s catching job that season. And while Leon took sizable steps backward last year, Vazquez stepped up, thus earning himself a contract extension prior to the current campaign.
Despite the struggles Vazquez and Leon have endured this year, the Red Sox clearly trust those two more than Swihart, who has transitioned to a utility role. The 26-year-old has barely played in the field, though, and has only caught one inning (in a blowout loss to Texas this past Thursday). Although Swihart has been working on bettering his behind-the-plate skills with Red Sox catching coordinator Chad Epperson and retired catcher Jason Varitek, as Drellich details in his piece, pitching coach Dana LeVangie noted that the best way for him to improve is by actually seeing game action at the position.
“He needs to play through failure, he needs to play through success, he needs to get comfortable,” LeVangie told Drellich. “And the only way to do it is to play. And for him to figure it out behind the plate, the only way to get more comfortable is more reps. He can get better in every facet.”
If Boston’s not going to be the team that gives Swihart a shot at catcher this year, he may wind up on another roster soon, Drellich points out. When on-the-mend second baseman Dustin Pedroia returns from offseason knee surgery in the coming weeks, Swihart’s time with the Red Sox could end, given that he’s out of options. Boston has turned down opportunities to trade Swihart in the past, but it might have to either deal him or expose him to waivers soon. For his part, Swihart’s not asking for a trade.
“I don’t think that you do that,” he told Drellich. “That’s my agent’s job to call and do that, you know? Me personally, the player, this is all I know, is the Red Sox. I know there’s other teams that probably tried to call and there’s stuff moving. But I’m not the type of person that’s just going to walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m not playing, so get rid of me.’ I mean, I want this team to win, and when I’m here, I want to be able to help contribute any way I can.”
Swihart perhaps has the ability to contribute not only at catcher, but in both the corner infield and outfield. The problem is that the Red Sox are set in all of those areas, with Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland at first, Rafael Devers at third and an enviable group of corner outfielders (Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and J.D. Martinez). The club’s embarrassment of riches at those spots has made it that much more difficult for Swihart to emerge as a factor in the majors – evidenced in part by his meager 25 PAs this year – though it’s possible he’ll soon have a chance to return to his natural position with another franchise.
Drellich names Texas as a possible fit for Swihart, which makes sense considering the Rangers have had interest in him the past. Further, they’ve clearly been in the market for a competent backup to Robinson Chirinos, having added Carlos Perez and Cameron Rupp in recent weeks. The Mets have also come up as speculative suitors for Swihart, thanks largely to starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s season-ending elbow injury and the fractured left hand backup Kevin Plawecki suffered a few weeks ago. New York hasn’t found anything resembling a solution behind the plate in those players’ absences, as fill-ins Jose Lobaton and Tomas Nido have combined for a mere eight hits (two for extra bases) in 70 PAs.
Regardless of whether he ultimately hooks on with the Rangers, Mets or someone else, it does appear Swihart’s days with the Red Sox are on the verge of concluding. If so, it would bring an end to what has been a disappointing Boston tenure for a player who once looked as if he could be its first long-term answer at catcher since Varitek retired after the 2011 campaign.
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