The Red Sox’s catching situation has once again shifted.
Christian Vazquez has suffered a broken right pinky finger and will need surgery, and the timeline for recovery from that is roughly six-to-eight weeks. With him out of the game, Sandy Leon will take the lion’s share of starts behind home plate, which leaves the position of backup catcher to the seldom-used Blake Swihart. For Swihart to actually see somewhat consistent time behind home plate — time that doesn’t involve him as a late-game replacement or as someone to catch warm-up pitches while either Vazquez or Leon gets their pads on — is actually surprising. From the beginning of the season, it was tough to visualize Swihart getting triple-digit innings actually, y’know, catching for a pitcher.
While this is something of a testament to the depth the Red Sox have, they really shouldn’t be getting much credit for it. If the Red Sox actually saw Swihart as a catcher first, they would’ve realized the redundancy of holding three catchers a long time before now. Instead, he’s been tried out at the corner infield positions and still run him out for a handful of innings in left field — a move that evokes flashbacks to how his 2016 season ended. So it would be stretching the truth to say the Red Sox saw him as a catcher first and not (however optimistically) a utility player coming off the bench. Swihart’s been taking up the 24th spot on the roster because the Red Sox ran out of options for him, and feel that he’s too valuable to let go, especially when his value is as low as it is. In that regard, they’re correct.
But the idea that the Red Sox kept Swihart as preparation for a Vazquez or Leon injury is naïve at best, and blind loyalty at worst. Third-string catchers can be had for a bucket of baseballs, and hell, Dan Butler is still on Pawtucket’s roster. He’d work just fine as a backup to the backup. Swihart’s there because the Red Sox thought his talent was too good to let go, not because the catcher tandem they had was somehow injury-prone. Catchers get nicked and dinged all year long, but outside of needing Tommy John surgery a few years ago, Vazquez wasn’t ever bitten by an injury bug until now. It’s simply bad luck for Vazquez, and a renewed chance to catch for Swihart. These things simply happen. But that’s enough fiery distrust of the Red Sox for one article.
Now we get to see what Blake Swihart is like when he actually plays catcher consistently, and quite frankly, this has been something long overdue from the former top prospect. Maybe there’s some post-post-sleeper hype in here, or maybe the talent doesn’t translate to productive skill. He’s got two months to show it, at the very least.
If we look at offensive production from the catcher position, the needle doesn’t really change much with Leon and Swihart. Neither Vazquez nor Swihart were offensive juggernauts, and the Red Sox were getting a combined .600 OPS from the position, good for 26th in the league. The bar’s set pretty low, all things considered. Going by history, Swihart’s supposedly a better hitter than Vazquez, so there’s a chance we could see a spark there. But that history is sourced from the last time he’s played a full season — over four years ago. Since 2015, Swihart’s had only 930 plate appearances in professional baseball. Outside of the second half of 2015, he’s had neither health nor consistency of playing time since then. I guess what I’m saying is that he’s one hell of a wild card when it comes to what he’ll do at the plate. He’s probably going to be mediocre, but I’m always here for a happy tale of an oft-injured player exceeding expectations and making it in big leagues. Expect little, but hope for a lot.
Defensively, well, things are a little more concrete there. Vazquez, as per usual, is an excellent defender, while Swihart has had issues with defending going back to his low minors days. He’s not a butcher, but calling him above average behind the plate is a little too optimistic for my tastes. Let’s just put this one down as “probably not going to be as good” and move on.
Look, you should be at least a little happy he’s going to get more time in the field at his original position, regardless of how or why he ended up in this situation. I’m definitely intrigued by it, and you should be too. He desperately needs the consistent playing time, and if that talent is still there, that might be all he needs. These next two months might just be Swihart’s only chance to stick with the Red Sox, and work his way back into their future plans, no matter how small or large that role might be.
Header photo courtesy of Troy Taormina — USA TODAY Sports