Regardless of what you think of Ben Cherington, the Red Sox’ general manager certainly deserves a good chunk of the blame for this subpar season. The onus is on the players to produce to their capabilities, but at the end of the day Cherington is the one who built this team. To his credit, he’s admitted as much. Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not he deserves enough blame to get fired, but that’s a different conversation.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about one particular aspect of the team that the front office may have failed with. The Red Sox’ catching depth has been tested in a big way this year, and it has failed that test. Boston’s backstops have a 59 wRC+, worse than all but four teams in the league. To their credit, the defense has been good enough to make them essentially replacement level. All in all, it’s been a rough year for Red Sox catchers, but does the front office deserve the blame here?
To answer this question, it’s unfair to start with the current duo of Blake Swihart and Sandy Leon. Clearly, this is not the tandem the front office had in mind to begin the season. The plan all along was to enter the year with Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan splitting the duties, with Swihart possibly coming up for one of them at some point in the second-half of the season. Vazquez and Hanigan wouldn’t have been a particularly impressive offensive pair — though they almost certainly would’ve been better than the 59 wRC+ — but the defense was going to be elite. In a lineup that should be dominant, it was probably fair to use that kind of glove-first strategy behind the plate.
Of course, things haven’t gone according to plan, and they’ve had to dip deep into the well of catchers around the league. That started by acquiring Sandy Leon from the Nationals to start the season. To put it simply, Leon has not been good this season. He’s hit .167/.257/.182 for a 20 wRC+ that’s somehow only 19 points than his career mark. With that being said, he’s served exclusively as a backup, racking up just 78 plate appearances in 2015. When Vazquez was hurt, Leon was brought in to serve as Hanigan’s backup. When Hanigan then hit the disabled list, Swihart was called up from Pawtucket and placed into something close to an everyday role.
Speaking of Swihart, the top prospect hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire. At 23 years old, he’s accrued 125 plate appearances at the major-league level and has hit .239/.282/.325 and a 65 wRC+. All in all, he hasn’t been great. Of course, a big part of that is the fact that the team was forced to rush him to the majors. The plan was never to have Swihart up in the majors this early in his carer, and to his credit he has looked much better at the plate over the last couple of weeks, hitting .261/.320/.413 in June.
This, however, is where you can reasonably start to criticize the front office’s dealing with the catching situation. Back when Hanigan was hurt, calling up Swihart wasn’t the only option to replace him on the roster. Specifically, Welington Castillo appeared to be available at the time. The Cubs had three catchers on their roster, and Castillo was the odd man out. He was dealt to Seattle right around this time in exchange for relief pitcher Yoervis Medina, something Boston could have certainly matched or beaten. With that being said, it’s debatable that his offense would be a big enough upgrade to outweigh his inferior defensive skills. All things considered, it’s hard to be overly upset about choosing Swihart over Castillo.
If you really want to blame this front office for the catching situation, you would have to go back two offseasons. It was at that point that the plan was really put in place to use the young catchers. Yes, they signed A.J. Pierzynski to catch in 2014, and that clearly didn’t work, but that wasn’t the endgame. They identified that as the most feasible one-year option to bridge them to the future. Kurt Suzuki turned out to be a better option, but that was hard to see coming prior to 2014.
Almost two years later, it’s fair to question whether or not they should’ve made a bigger commitment behind the plate. At the time, I was a big proponent of bringing Jarrod Saltalamacchia back. There were worries that he’d block the young backstops, but hind sight has shown us that it would’ve only happened in 2016, if at all. However, he’s been bad enough since leaving that the Marlins cut him earlier in the year. It’s hard to get upset with the front office for not bringing him back. The other option was Brian McCann, someone else I was high on at the time. After struggling a bit in his first season with the Yankees, he has been outstanding this season. The problem with McCann is that he’s still under contract for three more guaranteed seasons after this one. There are ways to sort that out, but with Hanley Ramirez likely having to switch positions as well, it would’ve been a roster crowded with poor defensive players.
One of the bigger reasons I’ve heard complaints about the front office is due to the lack of production behind the plate, which seems strange to me. It’s the one place on the diamond where the situation has gotten out of their control, as horrible luck derailed the whole group. Sure, they could’ve brought in someone like Castillo, but that wouldn’t have helped much. The biggest criticism you can levy is likely related to not bringing in someone like Brian McCann, but even that would’ve come with its own issues. The Red Sox have clearly struggled behind the plate in 2015, but this is not one of the areas in which Ben Cherington has failed.