In the winter leading up to the 2015 season, the Boston Red Sox future at the catching position looked about as good as anyone could imagine. 23-year-old Christian Vazquez made his major-league debut in 2014, playing in 55 games over the second half of the season. Vazquez impressed many around the organization, living up to his billing as a first-division defensive catcher (14.8 Fielding Runs Above Average according to Baseball Prospectus) and hitting more than some may have expected, putting together a .240/.308/.309 line with one home run and nine doubles. While Vazquez was never considered a heavy hitter, his .069 isolated slugging was a bit light, his 33:19 K:BB ratio showed good discipline for a rookie.
In the minors. the Red Sox had another promising player coming up through the ranks in 22-year-old Blake Swihart, a switch-hitter, who batted .293/.341/.469 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014 and was excellent behind the plate, throwing out 46 percent of would-be base-stealers and allowing no passed balls in 97 games behind the plate. Leading up to the 2015 season, Swihart was ranked in the top 20 prospects in all of baseball by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com. With Boston planning on giving Swihart another year at Triple-A to refine his game, the Red Sox traded Will Middlebrooks to San Diego in exchange for veteran backstop Ryan Hanigan in December of 2014. Hanigan’s contract had two years and $7.2 million left on it, including a $3.75 million option for 2017.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Hanigan turned out to be a fill-in for Vazquez, not Swihart, as Vazquez missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow in early April. Early in the season, Hanigan was the team’s primary catcher, with Sandy Leon performing the backup duties. After he hit a scorching .311/.363/.351 in 20 games with Triple-A Pawtucket, Swihart was called up in early May and immediately assumed the starting role with the big-league club. In 80 games with Boston last year, Swihart hit .274/.319/.392 with five home runs and 17 doubles. Swihart looked especially good in the second half of the year, when he slashed .303/.353/.452, knocking four of his five homers after the All-Star break. As the backup, Hanigan was solid for the Red Sox, hitting .247/.337/.328 in 54 games with a pair of home runs and eight doubles to his credit.
Defensively, Hanigan was the better of the two backstops, posting a 1.3 FRAA in just over 450.0 innings at the position, with most of his value (1.0 Framing Runs) coming from his framing abilities. Conversely, Swihart’s framing is what held him back defensively, as he racked up a -6.0 Framing Runs in nearly 700.0 innings behind the plate. His blocking was a bit below average (-0.6 Blocking Runs), while his arm strength did continue to play at an above-average level (0.3 Throwing Runs) in the majors. Certainly, Swihart has time to mature and develop his skills behind the plate, but he’ll almost certainly never be on par with Vazquez defensively.
With all of these facts considered, the Red Sox face a predicament for the 2016 season, as Vazquez is now fully recovered from his surgery and physically ready to compete at the major-league level once again. This leaves the Red Sox with three legitimate major-league catchers on their 40-man roster for the season, and one of them (Hanigan) is out of minor-league options after accruing over seven years of service time over the past nine seasons. So in order to provide not only the best product on the field, but to best suit the development of the youngsters Swihart and Vazquez, the Red Sox need to determine how they will handle their three catchers going forward into the 2016 regular season.
Fortunately for those charged with speculating on this issue from the outside looking in, the first piece of this catching puzzle has been put in place already, as Rob Bradford of WEEI wrote this morning that manager John Farrell has officially ruled out Vazquez from making the Opening Day roster. This means that the club will pick up 2016 where it left off in 2015, with Swihart doing the bulk of the work behind the dish and Hanigan seeing time as the backup, possibly serving as the personal catcher to Joe Kelly.
So far this spring, Vazquez has looked nearly back to 100 percent physically, but his level of play hasn’t been up to par, as he’s hitting just 1-for-11 with one walk and two strikeouts in seven big-league spring games. After missing a full season of MLB action, it’s not surprising that Vazquez is a little rusty, so a stint in Triple-A to begin the season will likely serve him well (it is worth noting, however, that he made 114 plate appearances as a DH in the Puerto Rican Winter League at the end of 2015).
Looking forward, it’s not outlandish to envision Vazquez staying in the minors long-term this season, giving him plenty of time to get himself back to speed playing against high-level opponents and ensuring he sees regular playing time. While he looked to be primed to stick in the majors after his 2013 debut, 2016 will be just his age-25 season, so there’s no rush to get him back up to majors before he – and the Red Sox – are ready. However, given his defensive prowess, it is hard to imagine the Red Sox keeping him down much past May if his bat looks impressive down at Pawtucket.
So, assuming Vazquez’s bat looks good at Triple-A, what do the Red Sox do to get him back in Boston? As was previously mentioned, Hanigan is out of minor-league options, so sending him down to the minors is out of the question at this point. Should Swihart continue to hit well as he did in the second half of last season, there’s certainly no way he’d be sent down, especially if his defense can improve a bit under Hanigan’s tutelage. Assuming Swihart doesn’t take a major step back, the most likely route could be to explore trading the veteran to a team in need of catching.
While this seems like it would be the best for all parties – the Red Sox might net a low-level prospect or cash for Hanigan and he could get more playing time elsewhere – the task would be exceptionally easier said than done. The first issue would be Hanigan’s value, which is largely based on his ability to calling games and framing pitches. Offensively, Hanigan’s best asset is his on-base ability versus left-handers, as he’s amassed a 45:71 K:BB ratio in 489 plate appearances against southpaws in his career. Overall, his offensive production is mediocre at best, and his best days are behind him. He’s never had more than 371 plate appearances in a season, and his wRC+ has topped 100 just once, in 2010 with Cincinnati (243 PA, 126 wRC+). While his contract isn’t huge, $3.7 million would be a fair amount to pay for a backup or platoon catcher.
While Hanigan’s value is not a huge issue, especially given that he would likely be just a second-half rental, the current market for catchers is what grinds any wishful thinking of an easy swap for Hanigan to a halt. Veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy, currently with the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers, was vocal in his desire for a trade this winter, and he will certainly be any team’s first choice should they explore options for a new face behind the plate. In six MLB seasons, Lucroy owns a .282/.340/.430 slash line, with 66 home runs and 140 doubles, good for a lifetime 110 wRC+. Additionally, Lucroy is entering just his age-30 season, and would cost a potential suitor just $9.25 million for team control through next year, should they choose to exercise his $5.25 million option for the 2017 season.
There have also been rumors swirling in San Diego about a potential trade of Derek Norris after top prospect Austin Hedges has displayed a ton of offensive capability so far in spring training. In four seasons, Norris has hit .248/.325/.396 with 40 homers and 76 doubles as well as a 104 wRC+. Norris would come with three years of team control (including 2016), as he will be eligible for arbitration prior to both 2017 and 2018. He’ll make just shy of $3 million this season, and that number stands to rise in both of the following offseasons.
So with one top catcher definitely on the market, and another potentially being shopped, Hanigan looks quite unattractive by comparison (figuratively, that is). The difference-maker would be the asking price for Hanigan, which would be relatively nothing compared to the talent it would take to pry Lucroy or Norris from the hands of their current clubs. Ideally, one or both of those players would be moved early in the season, giving the Red Sox time to strike a deal with a bargain-hunting club looking to upgrade their catching core for the stretch run.
Should the Red Sox fail to move Hanigan, and Swihart does hit well, they could just go ahead and move Vazquez up anyway, playing with three catchers on the 25-man roster. While this may seem like overkill, Farrell hasn’t ruled out the possibility, according to Sam Galanis of NESN. While the option is there, such a move would force out one of Boston’s three bench players beside Hanigan, in Brock Holt, Travis Shaw, or Chris Young. Holt’s versatility, Shaw’s hot bat, and Young’s propensity for mashing left-handed pitching make it very tough to imagine that such a move would be made, unless a roster spot was vacated by injury.
The last move, maybe even less likely than the other two alternatives, would be to send Swihart down to Triple-A when Vazquez is ready to come up. It would be unusual to see a player moved down long-term after playing in 80 games the prior season, but Swihart is still a year younger than Vazquez, and could benefit from some time in the minors to work on his defensive abilities. However, Boston’s two best pitch-framers are Hanigan and Vazquez, so having Swihart around them and learning from them would be beneficial to his development. However, if his defense doesn’t improve and he slumps early as he did in last year’s first half, it would not be surprising to see Swihart get some time in Triple-A.
As a whole, the Red Sox would ideally like to do as little shuffling of their catchers as possible. Giving Vazquez and Swihart consistent repetitions and playing time at either level is likely what is best for their development. Should a trade opportunity for Hanigan present itself, and both youngsters look solid at the time, that would likely be the best move for the Red Sox. However, with both players younger than 25 and still with flaws in their game to work on, there’s no reason to be impatient about getting them in the majors full-time. Come time for roster expansion in the fall, all three players will be in the majors, so we won’t even have to wait until 2017 to see both Vazquez and Swihart side-by-side in Boston. While it’s certainly exciting to have such young, talented players waiting in the wings, nobody should fret if they don’t see both of the young catchers in Boston until September.