Injuries to Swihart, Hanigan Leave Red Sox Scrambling

Prior to their 1:35 PM ET matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, the Boston Red Sox made a series of roster moves, most notably placing catcher/left fielder Blake Swihart and catcher Ryan Hanigan on the 15-day disabled list. Both players left Saturday’s game against Toronto with injuries.

Taking their places on the active roster are outfielder Rusney Castillo and relief pitcher Heath Hembree, who had both been playing for Triple-A Pawtucket. Catcher Sandy Leon was selected to join the major-league club as well, with relief pitcher Noe Ramirez sent down to Pawtucket in return.

Swihart is the player who is going to be missed the most, as he’s started all but two games in left field for the Red Sox since he returned from a stint in Triple-A on May 20. Defensively, Swihart’s been better than expected, looking comfortable in his new position and even posting a +2 defensive runs saved. Over his last eleven contests, Swihart had put up a .286/.375/.457 line with a 122 wRC+ at the plate. For the season, Swihart boasts a .258/.365/.355 line and a 96 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances.

Replacing Swihart in the Red Sox outfield mix will be Cuban signee Rusney Castillo. Since signing a massive seven-year, $72.5 million contract with the club in August of 2014, Castillo’s been nagged by multiple injuries, and when he’s been healthy the on-field product has been poor. His tenure in Boston began on a good note — he hit .333/.400/.528 in 40 plate appearances down the stretch in 2014 — but last year he hit just .258/.288/.359 in 289 PAs, and saw just four plate appearances this season before being sent down to Pawtucket early in April.

Rich Gagnon/Getty Images North America

Rich Gagnon/Getty Images North America

With ultra-utility man Brock Holt still battling lingering issues stemming from a concussion he sustained in May, the Red Sox outfield core now consists of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Chris Young, and Castillo. Betts and Bradley have solidified themselves as the starting right and center fielders, respectively, but now left field is up for grabs with Swihart likely out for an extended period. Young has been quietly great in the Red Sox offense so far this year, batting .284/.361/.541 — all of which would be career-best numbers over a full season — in 83 PAs.

The difficulty in splitting the time between Castillo and Young is that they are both right-handed hitters who hit relatively poorly against right-handed pitchers. Here is a side-by-side comparison of both hitters’ career platoon splits:

sox LF

Both obviously perform much better against lefties, which poses a complicated issue. Young is clearly the better hitter in both cases, so he should generally get the majority of the playing time in Swihart and Holt’s absence. However, the times it would make sense to give Rusney a chance in the lineup — against lefties — are the days that Young would theoretically be at his best. Manager John Farrell and the rest of the Boston coaching staff will have some big decisions to make moving forward.

Behind the plate, Hanigan’s absence will also be problematic, but not to the degree with which Swihart’s will be. Hanigan’s primary responsibilities since the return of Christian Vazquez had been handling the knuckleball of Steven Wright, but that was not working out as hoped for the Red Sox. Hanigan is currently leading the majors in passed balls with 17, including three on Saturday in just six innings of work. At the plate, Hanigan has struggled all season, amassing a .186/.250/.229 line over 76 PAs, good for a miserable 27 wRC+. Since May 18, Hanigan is just 3-for-20 in seven games played.

Replacing Hanigan behind the plate will be Sandy Leon, a 27-year-old from Venezuela. Leon saw some significant time as the Red Sox catcher last season before Blake Swihart’s initial call-up, but hit just .184/.238/.202 in 128 PAs. This year at Triple-A Pawtucket, however, Leon has hit a respectable .243/.315/.339 in 130 PAs. Leon will likely take an even more reserved role than Hanigan had, giving Vazquez the vast majority of the time behind the plate until Hanigan’s return. Leon does have some experience working with Wright in the past. so it is likely most (if not all) of Leon’s playing time will come when Wright toes the rubber every fifth day.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America

Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America

In the bullpen, the Red Sox are effectively swapping Noe Ramirez for Heath Hembree, and for good reason. While both have been shuffled between the minors and the majors a few times this season, Hembree has much better capitalized on his opportunities at the MLB level than Ramirez has. In 11 games and 11.0 innings so far this season, Ramirez has racked up a 6.55 ERA and 7.12 FIP, walking seven against eleven strikeouts. Ramirez has also been a bit prone to giving up the longball, as he’s allowed three home runs already this season. Ramirez has also allowed four of seven inherited runners to score, the seventh-worst percentage among American League relievers with ten or more innings pitched (min. 5 IR). Hembree, on the other hand, has looked pretty solid, tossing 21.0 innings over 12 appearances and earning himself a 2.14 ERA and 3.36 FIP with 18 strikeouts and just five walks. Hembree’s also been much better with runners on base, stranding 80.2 percent of all runners and allowing just one of eight inherited runners to score.

Missing the bat of Swihart is going to impact the Red Sox the most moving forward, and the ability of John Farrell, Torey Lovullo and the rest of the staff to find a productive balance between Chris Young and Rusney Castillo in left field will dictate exactly how bad Swihart’s absence is. If no effective split can be found, and Swihart is out for an extended period, it might be time for the Red Sox to explore potential trade options with corner outfielders Ryan Braun and Carlos Gonzalez reportedly on the market. With the pitching staff looking shaky at time this season, the Red Sox offense has carried the team thus far, so management should do everything in their power to make sure the bats keep producing as much as possible.

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