Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
When Christian Vazquez was called up in July of 2014, he was billed as a defense-first catcher with an iffy bat, and—voila—that’s what he was. It’s just that nobody quite knew that “defense-first catcher” meant that Vazquez, then a 23-year-old rookie, would throw out 52 percent of would-be base stealers, post near league-leading per-pitch framing numbers and handle the staff like a 10-year vet. Even the bat showed signs of life—19 walks and 33 strikeouts in 201 plate appearances ain’t all that bad, and there were hints of gap power underneath an unpolished exterior.
The catcher position was Vazquez’s to lose heading into 2015, even after Boston shipped Will Middlebrooks to San Diego for real-life veteran Ryan Hanigan over the winter. Then, just before the season started, the bad news broke: Tommy John surgery. Catching duties were reassigned to Hanigan and Sandy Leon, but Hanigan got injured and Leon stunk, so Blake Swihart was prematurely called up in early May. In the end, the Red Sox were left scrambling at a position they once felt good about, and Vazquez got started on his long road back to the majors.
What Went Right in 2015
It’s easy to say nothing, but consider the good side of bad:
1. The surgery went well.
2. Vazquez got to take a break from the tolls of catching at an age when most backstops are logging significant innings. Consider Vazquez’s games caught tallies since he entered pro ball in 2008:
*Includes fall ball and winter leagues
(source: Baseball Reference)
It’s not entirely clear that missing a season during one’s peak is a good thing overall—shoot, it probably isn’t—but it’s certainly possible that the rest will do Vazquez plenty of good long-term, especially since catchers are known for rapid decline phases and, when used too frequently in a season, nose-diving performance. Best-case scenario Vazquez comes back rejuvenated from not having to catch 100-plus games in a season, and also with a functional right arm and an improving bat.
3. Red Sox catchers hit a combined .249/.311/.336 last season, and their collective work behind the plate left plenty to be desired, at least compared to Vazquez. Swihart steadily improved with the bat, but his OPS still barely cracked .700, and his defensive chops are just passable at this point. Hanigan posted the second-worst TAv of his career while his framing numbers dipped closer to league average—he also turned 35 in August and missed significant time last year due to a fractured finger. Leon did his best Leon impression, which includes a rocket arm and an invisible bat. In other words, nobody turned Vazquez into an afterthought.
What Went Wrong in 2015
Well, that whole Tommy John thing. As Bryan Grosnick wrote about back in April, the list of catchers who have underwent TJ surgery doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a hiccup-free return. There’s always the risk that Vazquez’s arm is never the same, or worse, that he has to undergo a second surgery or switch positions. On the positive side, it’s tough to find TJ comps for Vazquez, who’s both young and owns tremendous arm strength. Even if the arm never returns to 2014 form, Vazquez might retain enough pop to keep the running game in check while remaining a plus in other defensive departments.
Perhaps just as concerning as the condition of Vazquez’s right elbow, however, is the lost developmental time, particularly since he possesses major question marks surrounding his offensive profile. If Vazquez is going to move beyond Jose Molina on the Molina Brothers Catching Barometer, he’s going to have to hit. Vazquez’s bat has been bereft of home run power since a 2011 power spike in Single-A Greenville, and it’s unclear whether he’ll get on base enough to make up for low ISOs. He posted a .239 TAv in his big-league debut, and while a run at league-average offense (or better) for the position isn’t out of the question, a lost year facing live pitching likely stunts his growth a few ticks.
Outlook for 2016
Vazquez is back on the field, having already picked up 26 plate appearances in winter ball, exclusively as a designated hitter. There’s a shot he’s ready to go by the start of the season, but there’s probably an equal shot he isn’t, and either way the Red Sox might opt to send him to Pawtucket for a month or two depending on how spring training goes. Boston has to figure out what it wants to do at catcher, too, with Vazquez, Swihart, and Hanigan all viable options. A trade is possible, but the organization seems rightfully high on Swihart and dealing Vazquez now would be selling at a low point. Hanigan, who’s owed $3.7 million in 2016 (with a ’17 club option), could eventually become the odd-man out, but right now he serves as needed insurance given Vazquez’s uncertain timetable.
If everything goes as planned, Vazquez should remain an important part of Boston’s long-term plans. Even if Swihart has surpassed him on the organizational depth chart, Vazquez brings a defensive profile that’s a rarity even at the big-league level, and his bat provides enough promise to dream on.
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