From 1974 to 1982, Mario Mendoza played in 686 major league games for the Pirates, Mariners, and Rangers, collecting 1,456 plate appearances. Those plate appearances established what is today known as the Mendoza line: .215/.245/.262, presented as the low point past which no amount of defensive excellence can justify keeping the bat in the lineup.
Christian Vazquez probably doesn't have to worry about that line. While he has long been known as a defensive whiz behind the plate, Vazquez hasn't been completely offensively inept in the minors, hitting .265/.344/.392 in his time in Boston's farm system. Mendoza, for what it's worth, hit just .239/.295/.315 in eight minor league seasons. His short time in the major leagues was far from inspiring, but even there Vazquez' .240/.308/.309 line is well clear of the line.
That being said...it's also not good. And while there's certainly hope for improvement on a rookie campaign, it would also be optimistic at best to expect big things at the plate from a catcher whose bat was often questioned by scouts. Vazquez' 2014 performance was good for only a 71 wRC+, the fifth lowest of the 40 catchers with 200 plate appearances, and left Vazquez nearly eight offensive runs below replacement in less than half a season of work.
This might not seem all that bad when you consider that, yes, he plays catcher. In reality, though, the position is not quite so offensively bankrupt as it's perceived to be. 15 primary catchers brought better-than-average (>100 wRC+) bats to the plate last year, with nine coming in at 120 wRC+ or better, and Russell Martin is even available on the market. This is not a case of "Christian Vazquez or dumpster diving," there are other legitimate options out there.
So Christian Vazquez is not Mario Mendoza, but his bat is still an issue. It leaves the Red Sox in some fairly uncomfortable space when it comes to figuring out their receiving corps for 2015. On the one hand, Vazquez is a good player, and they want to get him time both behind and at the plate. On the other hand, if they go into the season with Vazquez as their full-time starter...well, backup catchers are often the bottom of the barrell when it comes to bats. The Sox will essentially be punting a spot in their lineup for a full 162 games.
Consider, for example, David Ross. The veteran backstop has said he's not ready to hang up the cleats just yet, and while in many ways he fits the mould of an ideal backup between his experience and defense, in many ways he's just an older, deteriorated Vazquez at this point. Having those two bats pick up a full ninth of the team's at bats would be sacrificing more than a handful of runs.
Adding to the complications is Blake Swihart. If there's a player who will rise above this issue and perform on both offense and defense, it's going to be Swihart. That being said, Swihart is still about a year away, and counting on him to provide pop in the second half of the season might be a bit much. At the same time, the Red Sox don't exactly want to fill a starting role with another catcher who will just cause a logjam down the road.
Photo Credit: Kelley L. Cox
The ideal situations are pipe dreams at best: the Red Sox sign Russell Martin to a 1-year deal for big money, or a playoff team like the A's or Angels or Orioles sees fit to deal away their starting catcher who's headed to free agency next year. These are not happening, and we should not waste time discussing them, at least not until the standings take shape in 2015 and maybe some presumed contenders start to fall off.
Less-than-ideal and still not entirely realistic is the idea of Russell Martin on a longer deal, potentially with an eye to trade him if the situation demands down the line. He's easily the premiere catcher on the market this year, however, and the Sox would likely have to overpay to get him to take a job with not one, but two heirs apparent to the starting and backup spots. This, in turn, would make him harder to trade should they decide it's time for a Swihart - Vazquez duo, though the Sox could also just end up trading one of the youngsters instead.
Perhaps, then, the Sox should lower their sights some. Geovany Soto, for instance, is no prize these days. It's been a long time since his best years at the plate in 2008 and 2010, and injuries kept him sidelined for much of last year. Still, there's upside there, particularly with the bat, that the Red Sox are unlikely to find elsewhere. Soto can't be asking for much given how these past four years have gone, and frankly given his physical issues splitting time with a second semi-starter might be for the best. And if there's a player who might be looking for a year in Fenway to rebuild their free agent value, Soto is probably the guy.
There is the option to be more ambitious. There are ways that Russell Martin brings his .290/.402/.430 line to Boston in 2015. There are other, even crazier ideas involving Boston's plethora of prospects. But, while the Red Sox certainly have plenty of resources available to them this offseason, there are also more important places to spend them (see: rotation, the). If the Sox start divvying up the money that they intend to spend and just happen to find they've got a hefty chunk of change left, it might be time to start exploring those options.
Until that comes to pass, though, the Red Sox should be prepared to take the good with the bad when it comes to Christian Vazquez. Adding a backup like Geovany Soto could go a long way towards mitigating Vazquez' offensive deficiencies, but when it comes down to it, the Mendoza line is very much what we should be measuring Vazquez against. His defense is not simply good, and it comes at what is very likely the most important defensive position on the field, perhaps by quite a large margin. Vazquez isn't approaching the Mendoza line, and so long as he's not, the Red Sox shouldn't be looking to replace him.
That being said, there are games and situations which call for a bat more than a glove. Where diminishing returns are very much in play when it comes to run prevention and baserunners are the real commodity. And, of course, having a real backup in case of injury will keep the Red Sox from having to throw Blake Swihart suddenly into the fire.
Christian Vazquez and the catching position are not a problem for the Red Sox, but it is a difficult one to really optimize. Hopefully this time around the market provides a better option than A.J. Pierzynski.