The Red Sox were set on signing a catcher to a short-term deal this off-season. Sure, they dabbled in the Brian McCann market, but the plan for him was not going to involve catching for the entirety of any contract with the Red Sox: McCann would have eventually shifted to designated hitter or first base in any Boston scenario. Lesser free agents, such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carlos Ruiz, and A.J. Pierzynski all received short-term offers from the Red Sox, because that was deemed the most important thing -- or, at least, one of the most important things -- about whomever was behind the plate for Boston in 2014.
If you're wondering why, there are two answers. One is named Christian Vazquez, and the other, Blake Swihart. Both catchers are prospects who will spend the 2014 season in the upper levels of Boston's farm system, and the Red Sox wanted to make sure that there was room for both once they were ready: limiting the contract of their current major-league backstops was the simplest way to allow for that.
In a lot of ways, signing A.J. Pierzynski has more to do with that pair than it actually does with Pierzynski. He simply fit the mold of what they wanted, in that he can be a capable, competent catcher for a single year as a 37-year-old who wouldn't be looking for significant riches or years. His presence allows Vazquez to spend the entire year at Triple-A, while allowing Swihart to move up to Double-A Portland without any need to rush him through the level. At the same time, it also guarantees that there will be an opportunity in 2015 for one or both to make the shift to the majors.
As of now, the Red Sox have a pair of 37-year-old backstops in the majors in Pierzynski and backup catcher David Ross. Ross could certainly sign on for one more year after 2014, should the Red Sox feel he has a place as something of a mentor to Vazquez who could help him transition to a big-league role, but that doesn't have to happen, either: as of right now, 2015 is totally open behind the plate for Boston.
Why should the Red Sox want that, though? With Swihart, the answer is a little more obvious, given his status as a top prospect. It's expected Swihart will return to many top-100 prospect lists this winter after a strong 2013 that saw the switch-hitter bat .298/.366/.428 while setting a career-high with 101 games caught. Swihart also led the Carolina League by throwing out 42 percent of basestealers, and his defense was lauded by prospect gurus like Jason Parks, who said Swihart was a "top 101 prospect in the game with helium" earlier this year:
Switch-hitting catcher with legit defensive skills and a projectable hit tool; power isn't big part of game, but should produce extra-base hits from a down-the-lineup role; makeup is top of the scale; will maximize skill-set; could develop into .275 hitter with 10 bombs and 20-plus doubles from behind the plate.
With his defense, that bat will absolutely play up behind the plate -- remember, Pierzynski, a backstop with a sub-.300 on-base percentage in 2013, was a league-average hitter for the position. The 22-year-old Swihart isn't likely to be ready in 2015, but he could also end up taking the leap next summer, like some other top Boston prospects have in recent years while at Double-A Portland, accelerating his clock and putting him ahead of the current schedule. That's one reason why leaving catcher open in Boston was a priority this winter.
The other, as already said, was Vazquez. He'll be 23 in 2014, and finished up this past season with the Triple-A PawSox. Vazquez hit .289/.376/.395 for Portland despite a slow start at the level on the batting average side -- once his batting average on balls in play began to climb to a normal level, his line improved significantly. He's never going to have a lot of power behind the plate, but the patience is for real, and isn't just a side product of sitting and waiting to be walked. Vazquez actually earned a free pass more times (47) than he struck out (44) while with Portland in 2013, a sign that he's willing to take a walk, but is also willing --and able -- to put the ball in play.
His defense is the real strong suit for him, though. Vazquez's arm is phenomenal, and his pop times behind the plate -- the time it takes for the ball to leave Vazquez's hand and reach the second baseman on a stolen base attempt -- are just flat-out silly, with Vazquez putting up numbers Red Sox personnel are not used to seeing. He's already been praised for his maturity behind the plate, as well as his ability to not only control the running game, but also to run a pitching staff effectively despite his youth. He blocks pitches, he frames pitches, he keeps runners at bay, and he calls a good game -- combine that with his plate patience, and it's hard to figure out why more people aren't excited about this guy.
The aforementioned Parks is a fan, who told Over the Monster this past summer that he wouldn't be surprised in a few years if Vazquez is a much better major-league player than he was a prospect. His defense is so good that it's pushed his bat along possibly faster than it should be, but it's also so good that it might not quite matter in the long run. That would be exciting enough on its own, but remember, Blake Swihart exists.
Boston has two catchers that, to different degrees, could grow up to be successful big-league backstops. They will have both of them for six years at minimum, and could push them to the majors as soon as 2015. They'll both be cheap when they arrive, earning the major-league minimum for three years until arbitration kicks in, and if they reach their potential, the Red Sox won't have to worry about figuring out anything behind the plate for the rest of the decade.
The signing of A.J. Pierzynski doesn't guarantee the above, but it creates an opportunity that signing a catcher to a long-term deal would not have. The Red Sox have catching prospects who could turn out to be big-league starters in the system, and they're both in the upper levels, nearly ready, but not quite there. Pierzynski can come in for a year, do his thing, and turn things over to whichever of the two is prepared for the majors come 2015, and, if things work out as planned, leaving McCann, Ruiz, and Salty behind will all make that much more sense.