Blake Swihart

Rebuilding the Red Sox: Who’s Behind the Plate in 2016?

For a lousy team playing out the string, the Red Sox don’t seem to be in such a bad spot. Perhaps it’s their play of late which has lightened my mood. Going 18-12 in the last month isn’t just not awful, it’s actually good! The outfield situation has cleared itself up with Hanley Ramirez out of the picture, and with Jackie Bradley hitting like Hanley Ramirez was supposed to hit, it’s even more productive than we thought. The infield is shaping up as well, at least for now anyway, with Hanley’s move to first, the emergence of Travis Shaw as a viable big leaguer in some role, and the return of Dustin Pedroia. Heck, even the pitching seems like watching them for a season shouldn’t cause one to repeatedly stab themselves in the eyes with the nearest blunt object (this is why I leave pillows lying around the TV). One of the other possibly more unsung sources of optimism in this little run comes from behind the plate.

To date Swihart and Ryan Hanigan have both been roughly average at the plate. This doesn’t sound spectacular except when you consider that 1) they’re catchers, and 2) there are as many major leaguers who are worse hitters than they are as there are hitters who are better. Defensively both have been about the same, though our catcher pitch framing metrics have Swihart as adding 23 extra strikes for 3.4 Fielding Runs Added By Count. That ranks 20th among catchers in baseball, and this is from a 23-year-old who was supposed to spend the majority, if not all of this season, at Triple-A. Oh, and while we’re saying nice things, Sandy Leon has a nice throwing arm. There. Going forward, the duo of Swihart and Hanigan promises good defense and, at minimum, some OBP.

But then there’s also Christian Vazquez. After losing Vazquez to Tommy John surgery during spring training, there was much worry about how the Red Sox catching situation would turn out. Surprisingly it’s turned out alright. Of course that doesn’t mean anything concrete for the 2016 season. Especially when you consider that the Red Sox are under new management, it’s difficult to say what the front office will look to do this off-season. They could try to go all in on 2016, in which case moving Swihart could be a possible outcome. Or they could continue the team’s effort to rebuild internally by keeping all three and making the best catching platoon they can.

We all act like Tommy John surgery is a flu shot, but it’s not. It’s very serious and some players don’t return with the same strengths they had before the injury.

There is the matter of Vazquez’s health, though; an unknown that could complicate the way he’s used next season and thus the way the others are as well. We all act like Tommy John surgery is a flu shot, but it’s not. It’s very serious and some players don’t return with the same strengths they had before the injury. Vazquez’s health is further complicated by the fact that he’s a catcher and we just don’t know that much about how having Tommy John surgery impacts catchers. There have been a few examples, but a few examples isn’t anything close to like what we have when it comes to pitchers who need the procedure. Matt Wieters had the surgery recently, as have a few other mostly not notable catchers. Wieters’ defense doesn’t seem to have taken a hit, but that’s just one case and might not be the way things turn out for Vazquez.

Not knowing much if anything about how Vazquez will be defensively when he returns next season complicates the situation with Hanigan and Swihart. If they’re all healthy, the Red Sox have three players for two spots. As two will be young players who teams generally prefer to give regular playing time in the minors rather than keeping them on the bench at the major league level, it’s likely one will find himself in the minors. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that will work itself out. Vazquez wasn’t a hitting star before the surgery and there’s a chance he will need time in the minors to get going both offensively and defensively. Then, if Vazquez proves healthy and pushes for a promotion, maybe at that point you look into dealing Hanigan.

The key to all this though is Swihart, who has made strides this season in Boston. Keep in mind he’s played all of 38 games in Triple-A and 94 in Double-A, and yet he’s still held his own through his first major league season. This bodes well for the future. Matt Collins touched on Swihart’s season at the plate a few weeks back so I don’t want to rehash his work here, but the end result, if I may skip down to the end of the page, is Swihart has shown the ability to improve and adjust to major league pitchers both while standing next to the plate and while crouched behind it. He’s got development left to go, but that doesn’t mean the team can’t start recouping value from him next season. In fact, barring an outlandish trade, the team will.

It’s difficult to see the Red Sox dealing Swihart without receiving a catcher in return, and if you look at this off-season’s list of free agent catchers I imagine you’ll agree. This all means that unless the Red Sox are looking to deal specifically for a star catcher, it’s very likely they’ll start next season with the young and improving Swihart, the older and cromulent Hanigan, and the young and health-challenged (for now) Vazquez. This isn’t a recipe for the best catching situation in baseball in 2016 but neither is it for the worst. That was a real possibility when Vazquez went down, but Swihart stepped up. What’s almost equally important is the Red Sox catching situation in 2017, 2018 and on down the proverbial road. With Swihart and a healthy Vazquez, the team is extraordinarily strong behind the dish. Hanigan is great protection for issues of health or regression by the kids, as well as a useful trade chip should the team need a bullpen arm mid-season.

If I were to write out the way the Red Sox catching situation looks, I’d make a line chart that starts low and ends up high. There is real long-term as well as short-term potential here. Potential for the team to set themselves at a vital position for the next half-decade, at least. If the Red Sox are trying to build something special here, something that can last a long time, they need to hold on to their young, cost-controlled and talented catchers. The value teams can get from good defensive catchers is astronomical. And guys who can hit, who show the ability to get better, are worth their weight in whatever precious metal you prefer. The extra cool thing about this is it’s not like following a top prospect in Low-A or whatever. These guys are here now and they’re improving against major league pitching while they’re helping the Boston Red Sox win baseball games. That’s a nice spot to be in both from the fan’s standpoint and the team’s.

Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images

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