Boston Red Sox’s Christian Vazquez, left, watches as Blake Swihart, right, fields balls from a pitching machine during catchers drills at baseball spring training in Fort Myers Fla., Monday Feb. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Blake Swihart or Christian Vazquez?
By: Ben Shapiro
Having an above average major league catcher is a luxury, is having two of them even better?
That’s the question the Red Sox may find themselves pondering this coming season and beyond.
That’s because the Red Sox have two young catchers with future All-Star potential.
Blake Swihart is a switch-hitting, 23 year old, former first round draft pick. One year ago he was a consensus top 20 major league prospect.
One year later Swihart is coming off a very solid first season in the majors. He had the ups-and-downs one could reasonably expect from any young player. Yet by the end of 2015 Swihart was displaying the solid bat and above average fielding ability that earned him his selection as the No. 26 overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft.
In most cases Swihart’s potential, combined with his promising first half-season at the big league level would earn him a vice-like grip on the starting catching position through the end of the decade and beyond.
Unfortunately for Swihart, and fortunately for the Red Sox, there’s another promising major league catcher option in the system.
Vazquez is older than Swihart (25 years old.) He was not a first round draft pick, nor was he ever a top 20 or top 100 major league prospect. Vazquez broke into the majors back in 2014. He didn’t display the same type of offensive prowess that the higher rated and more heavily hyped Swihart did in 2015.
Vazquez has never, and regardless of his eventual role in the majors, probably will never produce at the plate in the same manner that Blake Swihart will. What Vazquez will most likely provide is elite, nearly unmatchable defensive skills. Vazquez is a once-a-generation defensive catcher.
Back in August of 2014, just a few weeks after making his big league debut, FanGraphs Jeff Sullivan wrote a column that detailed the elite defensive skills possessed by Vazquez. That column focused primarily on Vazquez’s pitch framing ability, but that’s not his only elite defensive skill. He also has a nearly unmatched arm behind the plate.
Of all the positions on the diamond, catcher is the one where teams are most likely willing to accept a significant offensive liability, in exchange for elite defensive skills.
Under normal circumstances that might give Vazquez a leg-up heading into 2016, but that’s not the case. Just as the 2015 season was set to begin, news broke that Vazquez would require tommy john surgery on an injured elbow. The surgery cost Vazquez the entire 2015 season and helped pave the way for Swihart’s debut as well.
On January 23, 2016 Vazquez told Sean McAdam of CCSNE that he was “ready to roll,” heading into spring training.
That’s nice, but the reality is that Swihart’s first round draft pick status, his more recent major league experience and his own tremendous upside both behind and at the plate will in all likelihood make him the Red Sox opening day catcher in April of 2016.
Veteran Ryan Hannigan will be the Red Sox backup catcher, which means that Vazquez will start the 2016 season as the starting catcher for the triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox.
That doesn’t mean the Vazquez won’t eventually end up as the Red Sox starting backstop. Assuming that Swihart continues to improve in the majors, the Red Sox are going to receive a non-stop flood of trade offers for the skilled, switch-hitting catcher. Barring an offer they simply can’t afford to reject, Swihart will probably remain on the roster.
That doesn’t mean he will be a catcher though.