With the New Year behind us and Boston’s roster mostly set, it’s the time of year when we all look forward to spring training. It’s real baseball players playing baseball, and that’s all we can ask for right now. Soon after games start, we’ll remember how boring spring training can be and go back to looking forward on the calendar. As boring as it may be, however, there will at least be a few interesting positions to watch in camp this year. First and foremost is likely the battle for the fifth starting slot in the rotation. While that battle between Joe Kelly, Henry Owens and Roenis Elias will steal the headlines, it’s not the most interesting fight for playing time to monitor this spring.
What the Red Sox do with their situation behind the plate is going to be one of the most fascinating storylines to watch all season. We’ll get our first look at Christian Vazquez since last year at this time, and how he looks could go a long way toward deciding the fate of several Red Sox. At the moment, the whole situation is mostly a mystery. Blake Swihart and Ryan Hanigan are going to start in the majors, but no one knows what to expect from Vazquez. If he can get back to his elite defensive form with just enough offense to get by, Boston will be home to three major-league quality backstops, two of whom are young and have tons of team control left. There hasn’t been much indication as to what they’ll do if everyone comes back healthy, but it’s going to be one of the most important decisions they’ll make in 2016.
Obviously, nothing is going to happen now. You don’t want to count your chickens before they hatch, which is apparently a thing that less intelligent farmers do. Vazquez is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and there’s not a lot of precedent to know what to expect from a catcher. He already had a lot to work on from a hitting perspective before the injury, and a year off isn’t going to help that. Most people expect him to get back to his previous level upon his return, but that needs to actually happen before any moves can be made regarding this backstop backlog.
By the time we’re a few months into the season, however, something may need to be done. As of this post, the plan appears to be to start the year with Swihart and Hanigan with Vazquez heading down to Pawtucket to get back into the swing of things. This is certainly one of those spots where everything will sort itself out, as one injury makes the overcrowding a non-issue. However, there’s a decent chance Dave Dombrowski will have to make a decision. The good news is he’ll have a lot of choices. The bad news is it’s hard to say which one is the right one. It’ll be a little easier when presented the proper context, but it’ll still be difficult. I wish I could say I knew what to do. Unfortunately, the only thing I know is what not to do, and that’s move Swihart to a different position.
This strategy has been thrown about for what seems like forever now, and as the actual time for action approaches, the calls are only getting louder. While some of it simply comes from prospect-hugging instincts, there are some merits to the idea. Mainly, you’re keeping one of your best young players — who is under control for a long time for very little money — despite the fact there is a better defensive player at his position. It also gives you depth behind the plate that no other team could have. So, don’t get me wrong, I see the appeal of the idea. It’s just that the appeal is dumb and this is the last thing the Red Sox should be doing.
Swihart’s bat is the most exciting part of the profile, but that’s mostly because it’s combined with an ability to play catcher
Not too long ago, Swihart was the top prospect in the farm system and one of the best in the entire league. In fact, it was just one year ago when he was ranked the 17th best prospect in baseball by the Baseball Prospectus scouting team. A big reason for that ranking is his ability to stick behind the plate. He’s still a work in progress on the defensive side of the ball, but he has the make-up and athletic ability to become at least an average catcher. His bat is the most exciting part of the profile, but that’s mostly because it’s combined with an ability to play catcher. It could profile well at third base, but he’d also need to learn to play that position, and the bat would be less valuable. There are also calls to play him at first base, but his offensive profile isn’t playing up there unless he hits something close to his 99th percentile. Despite not being known for his defensive ability, Swihart’s positional value is a big part of why his overall game is so enticing. A guy who can hit like him is a fine player, but a guy who can hit like him and play catcher is a borderline stud.
Add this to the fact that the Red Sox are certainly not a team without needs. Even with all the work done this offseason, there are still holes on this roster. The rotation is scary behind David Price. The outfield has a lot of bust potential. Both corner infield spots could be black holes in 2016. Luckily for them, Swihart can be a very attractive trade chip, as we saw through all the rumors prior to signing Price. If Vazquez proves himself to be a better starting catcher option than Swihart by the trade deadline, the latter could bring back an impact piece to help them at another position of weakness and push them closer to a World Series run. Cashing in his value in a move like that would be much more productive than simply changing his position so you can keep everyone.
It should go without saying that the Red Sox don’t have to trade Swihart. They can very well keep him as their catcher and go forward like that. If he develops how we hope, he could be a borderline All-Star for a long time. Moving him to a different position should be a nonstarter, though. Swihart carries a ton of value for this team, and part of that includes what he could bring back in a trade. They’d be shortsighted to diminish that value to keep him on the current roster rather than cashing it in for an impact player at a position of need.
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