In a season where little has gone right for the Red Sox, the team's poor production at catcher has contributed to yet another disappointing campaign spent in last place.
When Ben Cherington traded Will Middlebrooks to San Diego for Ryan Hanigan this past offseason, many observers wondered whether there would be enough playing time to go around. Hanigan joined two promising youngsters in Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, though it was clear the 34-year-old veteran wasn't part of the long-term picture at the position for Boston.
Yet Swihart still needed some seasoning down in Triple-A, making the acquisition of Hanigan a nifty pick-up. With question marks surrounding Vazquez's performance in his first full major league season, Hanigan looked like the perfect player to provide some dependability in a part-time role.
But just as the rest of the roster has failed to meet expectations, so too did the club's well-thought-out plans at catcher fall prey to unforeseen circumstances. In mid-March, three weeks before the season even began, Vazquez was shelved with soreness in his throwing elbow. The injury turned out to be serious, of course, with Vazquez requiring Tommy John surgery that saw his 2015 come to a premature end.
Losing Vazquez so early in the year proved to be a harbinger of things to come, but with Hanigan on the roster and Swihart just a step away in Pawtucket, the Red Sox looked like they had the necessary depth to survive. That all changed when Hanigan went down with a fractured right hand less than a month into the season.
Hanigan's injury forced Boston to rush Blake Swihart to the majors, despite the youngster having fewer than 40 games of experience down in Triple-A. Swihart, as one should expect, has struggled for much of 2015. And even Hanigan's return in early July hasn't saved the Red Sox from woeful catching production.
As a whole, Boston's catchers have batted just .227/.295/.294 on the season, failing to get on base at a respectable clip or hit for any kind of power. Much of this can be explained away by the growing pains Swihart has gone through in his first experiences against big league pitching while also trying to handle a struggling rotation behind the plate. That the Red Sox were forced to hand Sandy Leon over 100 plate appearances didn't help either. When your top two players on the depth chart succumb to injuries, there's really very little you can do.
Yet all these struggles don't mean the club is doomed to endure another subpar campaign at catcher in 2016. Swihart, for his part, is showing signs of improvement at the plate. Since May 23, he's shown some signs of life (and an ability to make contact), batting .274/.317/.381. Those numbers won't make him an All-Star by any means but do represent roughly league average production at catcher. The 23-year-old also ranks just above average in pitch framing this year, according to Baseball Prospectus, and his defensive contributions haven't hindered the team's play.
With just under two months remaining this season, Swihart should benefit from further playing time down the stretch. He's a long ways from reaching his potential, but there's little denying he'll be in a much better position to succeed once 2016 rolls around. It's not his fault he had to learn on the job like this, but he's held his own after a rough first few weeks.
Hanigan, meanwhile, is under contract for another season on a reasonable salary of $3.75 million. He'll never be confused for an All-Star, but he does bring solid on-base ability and defensive prowess. For that price, moreover, he should be just the type of valuable part-time contributor the Red Sox expected him to be in 2015.
In addition, Boston will welcome back Vazquez at some point early next season. The Puerto Rican native recently began throwing for the first time since undergoing surgery, and his potential value shouldn't be discounted. His bat remains a question mark, but Vazquez proved to be an elite framer during the 2014 campaign and drew praise from veterans on the Red Sox staff for his ability to handle pitchers.
Cherington is part of the solution, but needs help
On his own, Ben Cherington is capable of great successes and great failures alike. A guiding hand could help eliminate the worst of those failures.
To be sure, there remain questions over how the surgery will affect Vazquez's strong throwing arm. Losing a year of development time never helps either. Still, the Red Sox have missed Vazquez's defensive ability behind the plate in 2015, and his framing will certainly benefit a pitching staff that could use any extra advantage it can find.
With an improved Swihart, Hanigan still around and Vazquez's return, Boston should be set up to vastly improve at catcher next season. They are, of course, the same trio the Red Sox expected to provide adequate production in 2015, but barring another spate of injuries, the club's fortunes at catcher are unlikely to deteriorate so dramatically a year from now.
That the Red Sox have the potential for such in-house improvement at catcher is indicative of the promise that still exists within their roster despite an ugly season. With Swihart, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Eduardo Rodriguez gaining MLB experience, Boston has plenty of young talent from which it will benefit over the next couple years. Add in other young contributors like Vazquez, Brian Johnson, Henry Owens, and a farm system still brimming with ability, and there's reason to be optimistic about what 2016 could bring.
The Red Sox need improvement pretty much across the board, to be sure. Yet this isn't a roster devoid of talent, and you don't have to squint too hard to see just where the team figures to be better a year from now. At no position is this reality more evident than at catcher.