Unless the rumors do materialize and the Red Sox go out and sign Trevor Plouffe, there is really no question about who the starters are at 8 of the 9 positions. However, we are going to have an open competition for the starting catcher position going into spring training. As it stands today, it will be a 3 horse race between Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, and Blake Swihart. To come to a logical conclusion, we first have to lay out the cases for all 3.
The Case for Sandy Leon
Sandy Leon appears to be the favorite going into the season after Dave Dombrowski announced that it will be his job to lose. Leon shocked all of Red Sox Nation in 2016 by hitting .310 with an .845 OPS after joining the team in June following Ryan Hanigan’s injury. Not to mention, Sandy maintained his reputation as a strong catch and throw backstop by gunning down 41% of base stealers. This was good for 3rd in the American League behind only Salvador Perez and Brian McCann. His organizational competition isn’t even all that close. Vazquez threw out 35% of runners while Swihart managed a measly 28%. This was far and away the best season of Leon’s professional career. He will turn 28 years old during spring training, so you could even make the case that he is just entering his prime. Choosing Leon would mean buying into what he did last year and having confidence that he can produce similar numbers.
The Case for Christian Vazquez
Christian Vazquez’ return from Tommy John Surgery was put on the fast track last year when Blake Swihart proved to be a defensive liability at the major league level. Christians impact on the pitching staff was immediate and he has received nothing but praise for his multitude of skills on the defensive side of the ball. Vazquez’ .227 batting average in 57 games last year could be a sign that he isn’t capable of hitting at the major league level, but it is more likely a consequence of his year off from baseball while he was recovering. He did manage to go 5-14 from July 1st onward, so maybe he just needed more reps. From a defensive standpoint, Vazquez’ blocking ability and frequency to steal strikes for his pitchers remained jaw-dropping. Despite only nabbing 35% of base stealers, Vazquez still wound up with 14 Defensive Runs Saved in just 56 games at catcher. In comparison, Sandy Leon tallied -2 DRS in 74 games while Blake Swihart ended with -1 DRS in just 6 games at catcher. At 26 years old, Vazquez still has room to improve and his superb defense could make up for a significant portion of his offensive growing pains. Choosing Vazquez would mean accepting that the rest of the offense will have to shoulder the load and sacrificing some offensive production for the sake of defense and the peace of mind of the pitching staff.
The Case for Blake Swihart
Swihart has the most offensive potential of the three. To this point, he has not proven that he’s ready to be any kind of special major league talent. However, with consistent reps in 2015, Swihart did manage to hit .303 in the second half of the season. Defensively, Swihart is a below-average defender and converting him to a left fielder last year certainly isn’t going to help his cause. Swihart is the clear choice to start the year in Triple-A since neither Leon nor Vazquez have any minor league options left. This will also give him the opportunity to work on his skills behind the plate while getting away from the bright lights of Boston. At just 25 years of age, Swihart could benefit from some more tie in the minors to further develop all of his tools. Choosing Swihart would mean buying into his potential for offensive production and hoping that he can prove to be a competent major league catcher.
Starter: Christian Vazquez
Christian Vazquez should be given the opportunity to be the Opening Day starter because of what he means to the pitchers. Having Vazquez behind the plate allows the pitchers to work on the edges with confidence that he can frame it for a strike, and it gives them the comfort of knowing that they can bury a curveball in the dirt without it turning into a passed ball. Not to mention, Vazquez had the least amount trouble catching Steven Wright's knuckleball. Therefore, if John Farrell intends on Wright being a major part of this pitching staff, he’s going to want the catcher that can handle him. I understand that the offense is going to take a hit with the loss of David Ortiz, but the improvements that have been made to the pitching staff should make up for any lack of pop. And I can tell you right now that Sandy Leon is not hitting .310 again. He’s a career .254 hitter, and I’d expect to see him right around there. So why wouldn’t you put the man behind the plate that the pitchers want? Pitching is going to be far too important to this team to make any other choice.
Photo Credit: (Boston Herald)