Christian Vazquez

Bats, Balls and Boston Backstops

It’s been a wild 12 months for the Red Sox’s catcher situation, and that’s very much an understatement.

Over the last year, I’ve been vocal on these webpages about how the Red Sox have handled their catcher situation, since whatever their way was has been nothing short of a calamity. Their top catching prospect, Blake Swihart, was moved off the position to left field, only to break an ankle running into a wall out there. Christian Vazquez came back, did good things until midseason, when he lost playing time to Bryan Holaday – Bryan Holaday! – and was all but relegated to the third catcher down the stretch. Sandy Leon came in as depth in 2015, came up in June of 2016 and set the world on fire for three months until fizzling out in September. Ryan Hanigan, who you’ve probably forgotten all about, became Vazquez with far less upside and far more age, and had his option declined in November. I’d rather not talk about Bryan Holaday for a third time this paragraph, but I had to round it out with something and he was the last notable catcher left.

The 2017 outlook for the catcher position is only slightly less complicated. Swihart, Leon, and Vazquez comprise the depth chart for the Red Sox, though not necessarily in that order. While Dave Dombrowski and John Farrell seem okay with having Blake Swihart fight for a job on the 25-man roster, they’ve also said that Leon will be coming into spring training as the starting catcher. That’s not an issue, since he’s earned it, and he’s also out of options, which makes things simpler.

That leaves the backup catcher job, which should be a competition, until you realize that Vazquez is also out of options. So Swihart is now playing just to get the reps in, which is totally fine. He needs all the time he can get, and he’ll probably work behind the plate in Pawtucket for a few months this summer as well. However, he might force the Red Sox’s hand later on, and it won’t be pretty.

To get a good grasp of what might happen, we’ll have to assess each catcher individually. It’s not going to be an actual scouting breakdown with 20-80 grades, but you’ll know where each of them stand after this.

Christian Vazquez is the catcher with the least possible variance. You know what you’re getting here. A lot of solid defense, not a lot of hitting. However, I will never pass up a chance to post his moonshot off Dellin Betances, because oh my lord is this satisfying to watch. The swing, the sound, everything.

Vazquez’s defense has looked better this spring, and his arm has been much better since last year, where it fell from incredible to merely goodish. That’ll happen after Tommy John surgery. Despite the rust, his framing is still fantastic and he’ll always be a positive behind the plate. Vazquez is looking more like his old self, but you’ll be wishing for his bat to do something before long.

Blake Swihart has been a victim of asset mismanagement. He wasn’t really lighting it up last year, but after being moved to left field and the constant yo-yo from Boston to Pawtucket and back, it’s not hard to see why he wasn’t really crushing it before breaking his ankle. Swihart’s defense has always been a work in progress, and he showed a little improvement in 2016. He’s got the most offensive potential in this group, and it’s not close on that front. Odds are he gets his reps in Pawtucket for the majority of the season, but if he smacks around Triple-A pitching enough, we’ll see him in Boston sooner than you think.

Everyone’s wondering if Sandy Leon will hit again, even though the answer seems obvious when the man produced a .392 BABIP last year while swinging at more pitches out of the zone and making less contact overall. PECOTA doesn’t really like his chances either, giving him a .240/.313/.356 slash. He’s a decent defender, and has a good arm, but his overall defense is decent at best. He’s not as good a framer as Vazquez, and if Vazquez’s arm is at full strength once again, his arm will be second-best as well.

If Leon starts hitting again, everybody will be stuck where they are. However, in the likely case that he doesn’t, Swihart has a good shot to seize a spot on the 25-man roster before long. Showing any life with the bat will be reason enough to bring him up, and a hot couple months in Pawtucket could see the end of Leon’s tenure in Boston. Plenty of teams would be willing to nab him as a backup if he gets designated for assignment.

I don’t like saying that Leon will be the odd man out here, since he just gave us the most unexpected and entertaining 1.7 WARP season we’ve ever seen, but that’s where we’re headed. Vazquez is all but entrenched in a backup spot and could be a starter in a pinch, but a recovered Swihart and his potential growth should take priority over Leon if Leon cannot be anything more than replacement level.

It’s a tough situation made worse due to a lack of options with Leon and Vazquez. It might not be pretty in 2017 when it comes to personnel behind home plate, but if the season ends with Swihart and Vazquez as the catching tandem, the Red Sox will be more than alright. Just don’t stick any of them in the outfield again. My heart – and their ankles – won’t be able to take it.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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1 comment on “Bats, Balls and Boston Backstops”

Walt in Maryland

Nice analysis. But it presumes all three catchers will stay healthy all season. There is very little chance at least one doesn’t spend time on the DL — happens every year– and that will change everything.

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