The Boston Red Sox entered the 2017 season with three options at catcher: Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, and Blake Swihart. Leon ended the 2016 season as the starting catcher after hitting .310 in 78 games. Swihart only played in 19 games before getting hurt, and Vazquez appeared in 57 games while hitting a meager .227. To bolster the bullpen or add a third baseman, if Pablo Sandoval doesn’t regain his past form, one of these three catchers is a viable trade option. The Red Sox catching situation is something Sox fans should follow in 2017.
Red Sox Catching Situation Breakdown
Swihart, the youngest and best offensive option of the three, was optioned to Triple-A before the season. He was chosen for demotion because he needed reps and had options left, while the other two did not. Though he has the highest career OPS. of the group, he has the worst throwing arm and isn’t as developed in his pitch framing or handling of the pitching staff.
Instead of splitting time in the majors, Swihart will catch every inning in Pawtucket and get valuable experience. If he can improve defensively, Swihart’s hit tool and athleticism make him a valuable asset. His ability to play other positions is interesting, and other teams may view him as an outfielder. Swihart could conceivably be the best option for the Red Sox in the long-term, and could bring the most talent back in a trade now.
Vazquez, whose development was slowed by Tommy John surgery in 2015, is one the best catchers in all of MLB when it comes to throwing out runners. While his defense is superb, his ability to hit at a capable level is a concern. He is a career .248/.308/.334 hitter, although to start 2017 he is 9/16 with four extra-base-hits. For the moment, he is the backup behind Leon. Boston sports writers, such as Dan Shaughnessy, called for the job to be Vazquez’s to start the season. Vazquez is younger than Leon and marginally better defensively, and is a better catcher than Swihart. Even when he inevitably slows down offensively, it might not matter. The Red Sox offense is good enough that his bat can be hidden at the bottom of the lineup. His defensive skills, and overall ability as a catcher, will net him some starting time.
Leon has the highest career WAR among the catching group and has started 11 of the 16 games this season. After a hot start to the season, Leon is down to a .225 average, but John Farrell is sticking with his starter, for now. Leon’s prowess as a thrower and defender is right up there with Vazquez. What separates Leon, from Vazquez specifically, is that he proved last season he can be an above average hitter. His OPS+ last season was nearly 50 points higher than that of Vazquez’s best season. His continued ability to hit will determine the length of leash he gets as the starter.
Swihart is signed thru 2022, while Vazquez and Leon are up for free agency in 2021. Vazquez will make $561,000 this season, Leon will make $1.3 million. Swihart made just over $500,000 last season. All three are under team control for several more seasons and are affordable. Leon is the 31st highest paid catcher in MLB, while Vazquez’s earnings rank 51st.
In all likelihood, if the Red Sox trade away one of their three catchers, the trade partner will determine the player to go, not the Red Sox. The three are all close enough in age, ability, and contract that whoever the other team offers the most for is the player who will be moved. For instance, if the Red Sox see Vasquez as the future but a team blows them away with an offer, Boston would conceivably trade him away and call up Swihart to backup and compete with Leon.
In the short term, it looks as though Leon will continue to start, with Vasquez playing every few games. Unless Vasquez continues to hit and Leon continues to struggle, Farrell will give Leon every opportunity to keep his starting spot. Their skills as catchers are similar enough that Farrell won’t risk a bruising Leon’s ego for marginal benefits from Vazquez, if any exist.