It's not quite time for top-100 lists just yet, but the crew over at MLB.com have named Blake Swihart the best catching prospect in baseball.
It's been a long time since the Red Sox have had any consistency behind the plate, particularly any defensive consistency. Victor Martinez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia filled the position for four-and-a-half years between the two of them, but acted more as second designated hitters during that period, while A.J. Pierzynski contributed pretty much nothing at all in 2014.
There's a reason the Sox have had so much trouble replacing Jason Varitek, of course. After drafting Jonathan Egen in the 2nd round of 2005, they did not take another catcher in the first 100 picks of any given draft until 2011, when they committed the 26th overall pick and a $2.5 million signing bonus to Swihart himself. It was a big investment aimed at finally securing an actual heir apparent at a position where the options in free agency are often sub-par or incredibly risky, given the tax the position takes on those who play it.
It's still too early to declare mission accomplished here. The best catching prospect in baseball Blake Swihart may be, but there's still a gap between the best prospect and even a below average MLB regular. Blake Swihart hasn't proven he can cut it in the majors yet, and while he's got a better chance of breaking through than any of the others who have passed through since Varitek's departure, he's still got the most important jump left in front of him.
For once, though, he's a backstop without any more caveats than any other prospect. There's no question of whether or not he's a catcher or just a designated hitter in disguise, as with Ryan Lavarnway. There's an expectation that his bat will not simply be good enough to justify his place in the majors, but a legitimate credit to him unlike those of Tim Federowicz or Christian Vazquez. Per the scouting report included with the list:
While his defense alone could make him a big league regular, Swihart offers offensive promise as well. A switch-hitter proficient from both sides of the plate, he makes consistent hard contact and began to tap into what should become average power last season. He could develop into a .280 hitter with 15 homers per season, though he may not draw many walks because he puts that bat on the ball so easily.
Not walking as much because you're too good at hitting is a nice problem to have. Or it can be if it's still the result of a solid approach. We saw both sides of that coin in 2014 when Swihart started the season off on a tear, hitting .320 in April while drawing just two walks, then cooled off significantly, going 12-for-52 while drawing just three walks over his next 13 games. We also saw that he was capable of avoiding that pitfall entirely as he reset and started showing discipline at the plate again over his last two months in Portland.
Whichever Swihart eventually shows up, the Red Sox will be glad to have him. If nothing is certain yet, Swihart is at least the most promising solution they've had behind the plate since Varitek first started declining all those years ago. And after so many years of sacrificing defense for offense, the thought of locking in six-plus years of a catcher who can perform both at and behind the plate seems almost too good to be true.