The Red Sox Catching Situation - Who Stays And Who Goes?

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The 2018 Red Sox indulged in the luxury of carrying three catchers on their roster, a practice they have already stated they will not do in 2019.  In my latest Red Sox Column To Be Named Later, I run down the Red Sox catcher situation and evaluate the trio of Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, and which one may be elsewhere once the regular season opens.

Photo courtesy of mlb.com

If you were a fan of the TV show M*A*S*H, you may remember an episode in which Hawkeye and Trapper tried to acquire an incubator for the 4077th.  After searching all over South Korea, they finally found a unit that had not only had an extra incubator, they had three.  However, when they tried to pry one of the spare incubators away from the supply sergeant he was reluctant to give one up.  Why, because if he let have one, he would only be left with two.  And two is not as good as three.

In 2018, the Red Sox took the same approach to their catcher situation.  Despite shortcomings in other roster spots, such as the lack a legitimate fourth outfielder or back-up middle infielder, they still managed to win 108 games and the World Series.  But with Dustin Pedroia hopefully returning from knee surgery to fill one previous open roster spot, and with question marks at the back end of the bullpen, keeping a third catcher is a luxury the Red Sox can no longer afford, and Dave Dombrowski has stated they are actively shopping all three in the hopes of landing more starting pitching.

Which leads to the question, who stays, and who is likely to go?  Let’s take a look at each candidate and his value to the team.

Sandy Leon – Age: 30
2018 Stats - 89 Games Played - .177/.232/.279 - 5 HR - 22 RBI - 26% Runners Caught Stealing
Contract Status: Arbitration eligible through 2020.  Owed $2.475 M in 2019.

Leon is an outstanding defensive catcher, and is the preferred receiver for ace Chris Sale.  He excels at blocking pitches in the dirt, and does an effective job controlling the opposing team’s running game.  Unfortunately Leon has not been able to come close to the same proficiency at the plate.  Leon has had some hot streaks at the plate, such as when he hit .455 over a six week period between June 1st and July 15th in 2016. 

But he has also experienced deep slumps when he looks lost at the plate.  Last season, when pressed to handle the bulk of the catching due to injuries to Vazquez and Swihart, Leon batted only .106 in 46 games to end the season.

Blake Swihart - Age: 27
Shop for Boston Red Sox fan gear from Nike, Majestic and New Era at Shop.MLB.com2018 Stats - 82 Games Played - .229/.285/.328 - 3 HR - 18 RBI - 26% Runners Caught Stealing
Contract Status: Arbitration eligible through 2022.  Owed $910 K in 2019.

Swihart was highly touted coming up through the Red Sox farm system, but has failed to reach that potential due in large part to a series of injuries.  His athleticism and hitting ability led to the Red Sox tinkering with the idea of switching to the outfield, but a broken ankle suffered while crashing into the left field side wall led to Swihart missing most of the 2016 season. 

Going into last season, Swihart was out of minor league options and the Red Sox were forced with the decision to retain him on the major league roster, or place him on waivers and hope no other team picked him up.  In order to keep him on the roster last season, the Red Sox again moved him all over the diamond in an effort to make him into a super sub.  Though they retained him on the roster, his playing time was sporadic at best, and he was never able to get into a groove at the plate. 

When Swihart finally got the chance for more playing time after Vazquez went on the disabled list with a broken finger in early July, the consistent at bats led to an uptick in production.  Between July 8th and August 3rd, Swihart batted .324 in ten games with a home run and four doubles.  He also showed a marked improvement behind the plate receiving and blocking pitches.  Though Leon and Vazquez carry the reputation for arm strength, Swihart’s pop time and accuracy were impressive during his brief stint as the back-up to Leon, before he again landed on the disabled list with a hamstring strain.  By the time he was healthy, Vazquez had also returned and Swihart was relegated back to the bench.

Christian Vazquez - Age: 28
2018 - 80 Games Played - .207/.257/.283 - 3 HR - 16 RBI - 37% Runners Caught Stealing
Contract Status: Signed through 2022.  Owed $13.3 M through 2021, with $7M Team Option or $250K Team Buyout in 2022.

Vazquez came up to the majors with the defensive reputation as the next Pudge Rodriguez or Yadier Molina, but not much was expected from him at the plate.  After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014 and missing the entire 2015 season, had a break out season in 2017 in which he slashed .290/.330/.404.  The Red Sox inked Vazquez to a three year, $13.3 M deal following that season, essentially anointing him as the long-term starter.  But Vazquez came in 2018 out of shape and struggled at the plate hitting only .213 before breaking his finger in early August.

Vazquez has also never quite lived up to his billing behind the plate.  Last season Vazquez was fifth in the majors with 11 passed balls (Leon was second with 13).  At times he also struggled with his accuracy throwing to second on stolen base attempts.  Not only was he not the second coming of Yadier Molina, he wasn’t even playing up to Jose or Bengie’s level defensively either.

Who’s In – Who’s Out

Of the three catchers, Leon is the most likely to stick with the team.  He is under team control for two more years at a cost effective salary.  He will not garner much in return on a trade due to his weak offensive performance.  A trade of Leon may also lead Sale to rush to the junk drawer in the Red Sox clubhouse to find a pair of scissors and cut up uniforms in protest.  To paraphrase Ryan Seacrest on American Idol…”Sandy Leon, you are safe.”

That leaves Swihart and Vazquez.  Each would have greater trade value than Leon, so they would bring a greater return that could contribute to the major league team, either this season or in the near future.  Vazquez is the more established player, both offensively and defensively, but he has likely reached his full potential.  In addition, Vazquez is locked up for the next few seasons and provides affordable cost certainty for whatever team acquires him.  If the Red Sox can move his salary, it would also help them acquire help at the trade deadline if their concern is staying under the luxury tax.

Swihart, on the other hand, has a much greater potential “up-side” than Vazquez.  His marked improvement behind the plate last season brought him closer to his more polished teammates, and the offensive production he would bring should offset any lingering deficiencies behind the plate.  In addition, Swihart is a switch hitter.  Paired with Leon, this gives Alex Cora even greater flexibility to play match-ups.

For these reasons, if I’m trader Dave, I would shop Vazquez for the best available prospects I can get.  I keep Leon to be Sale’s personal catcher, and have him split the remainder of the games with Swihart.  There is some risk involved, but fresh off a World Series championship, the Red Sox can afford to take a risk.  They’re taking a huge one in the bullpen, why not behind the plate.


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Boston Sports Syndicate: The Red Sox Catching Situation - Who Stays And Who Goes?
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