If you asked me a month ago to list the most important Red Sox players to stay healthy, I’m not sure Christian Vazquez would’ve ranked too highly. That’s not a knock on Vazquez. It’s more of a commentary of how I thought of the catching situation. The reality is the injury to the young backstop is massive because, among other reasons, it exposed Boston’s lack of depth behind the plate.
Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan were supposed to handle the majority of the catching load, with Blake Swihart stepping up later in the year if ready and necessary. The injury shook everything up. The front office started to address this yesterday by acquiring Nationals’ third catcher Sandy Leon, adding another veteran (for lack of a better word) to the mix with Humberto Quintero. Neither of those options are very exciting and, shockingly, I’m not here to talk about them. The acquisition makes it clear that the Red Sox do not plan on rushing Swihart to the majors based on current needs. And that is a very good thing.
All offseason, this front office has made it abundantly clear that they are not placing the interests of 2015 over the interests of the future at all costs. If they were, Swihart wouldn’t even be here and Cole Hamels would be taking the hill in Philadelphia wearing a "Boston" shirt. The number 17 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, Swihart has played just three seasons of professional baseball. Of those three seasons, only one came in the upper levels, and that was last season. He spent most of his time in Portland and has just 18 games under his belt at Pawtucket.
Didn’t they "rush" Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Mookie Betts? That’s the question I’ve seen posed a bunch of times in relation to the Swihart issue, and it’s a fair one. For their other recent position player prospects, the clock was significantly accelerated as soon as they hit Double-A. The simple answer is that it’s different for catchers. There’s just so much more on their plate to become major-league ready to expect them to fly to the majors. Not only do they have to learn to hit major-league pitching (which is really hard!), they also have to learn to deal with pitching staffs, learn to call a game, learn to block more advanced pitches, learn to control the running game, and I think you get the point. There’s a lot to learn, so why make it harder than it has to be?
To better make this point, I went through the Baseball America archives back to 2005 and checked how all of the catchers in their top-100 lists performed in their first MLB season. It’s a rather large table, so I’ll just link to my Google spreadsheet instead of dropping it in here. Other than learning that Neil Walker was a highly touted catching prospect (something I didn’t include here since he never played behind the plate in the majors), it’s clear that very few top catching prospects come up and hit right away. Of the 32 who have had a season with 100 plate appearances, only nine were above-average at the plate in their first major-league season. Guys like Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana and Yasmani Grandal were able to come up and rake right away, but there’s a couple issues expecting that from Swihart. For one thing, it’s a clear outlier and these are some of the best catchers (or former catchers) in baseball. On top of that, between health and defense, they each had their own problems at the time. Except for Buster Posey, but expecting Swihart to be Posey is setting yourself up for disappointment.
To be clear, keeping Swihart in Triple-A for as long as possible will help both 2015 and the future .Given how little experience he has above Single-A, Swihart probably isn’t all that much better than a Sandy Leon or Humberto Quintero right now, if at all. The most famous example of a catcher not living up to expectations right away is Matt Wieters, but Devin Mesoraco is the one I think of more. Based on Baseball America rankings, he came up with a similar pedigree to Swihart, and had three seasons of struggles before finally breaking out last year. That’s the norm when it comes to catchers, not Buster Posey.
In the end, it all comes down to this: If they were so against dealing Swihart for Hamels all offseason, why would they go and sacrifice his development at the first sign of adversity? Really, it was clear as soon as the Vazquez news came out that they’d grab another catcher for the roster. Blake Swihart is going to be up in Boston at some point, and there's a good chance it'll be later this year. The Red Sox aren’t going to rush him, though, and they’re smart for avoiding that.