It's hard to find good catching these days. Last year, less than half the teams in the league saw 2 fWAR or better from their catchers. The Red Sox, thanks in large part to their need to turn to Sandy Leon for 128 plate appearances, were not one of those lucky teams.
They're hoping 2016 will be different, and there's good reason to believe that it will be. After all, given just over 80 games, Blake Swihart managed to reach the 1.5-win mark. It was a performance helped along by what is likely some BABIP luck (though Swihart's game is such that he should expect that figure to be higher than a typical catcher's), but also dragged down by being called up at least a month before he was expected to be, even taking into account a solid start to the season in Pawtucket.
And yet, where the Red Sox find themselves with one of baseball's greatest commodities--a young, team-controlled catcher with the chance to provide big value both at the plate and behind it--it seems like there's plenty who are interested in seeing that change. Since he was first drafted, Swihart has always carried that tag of a player who might switch positions down the line. In part, the idea was to protect his bat from the long-term rigors of catching, but mostly the idea stemmed from the fact that he simply hadn't caught much. He had the tools to be good at the position, it was just a question of whether or not it would take.
Meanwhile, Christian Vazquez emerged as a realistic alternative for the Red Sox at catcher, beating Swihart to the show (unsurprising, given that he's more than a year older than Swihart) while displaying one of the game's best gloves at the position. Tommy John surgery kept him out of the picture last year, but he's on the mend now, and will likely only be kept in Triple-A to start the season due to rust, and the team having both Swihart and Ryan Hanigan available.
Between that minor log jam, and the potential for the Red Sox to need help at other positions--third, first, the outfield--in the near future should things go wrong there in 2016, there are those who would like to see Swihart play elsewhere.
It's a bad idea.
The simple question at hand here is value. Where is Swihart most valuable? The answer is behind the plate, unquestionably. That lack of experience has been helped by a few years in the farm system. While Swihart is no finished product back there, he is competent. His bat, as it stands, plays best behind the plate as well. While we can hope--perhaps even expect--improvement in that department even taking into consideration some regression to the mean in terms of BABIP, until we see that come to pass, there's no position where Red Sox fans would be happier with his bat than at catcher, where expectations are at their lowest for a hitter.
And let's make no mistake, switching Swihart to a different position won't be a catalyst for improvement at the plate. It may even send him in the other direction. While he was once inexperienced at catcher, Swihart is now inexperienced everywhere else. Yes, he played in the outfield and at shortstop before being drafted, but he did so at a high school level. Even for most first-round draft picks, that level is not up to snuff at the majors. It's extremely likely that Swihart is better relative to the field behind the plate now than at any other position, even if that may not have been close to true back in 2012. If he needs polishing behind the plate, he'll likely need still more work to get up to speed elsewhere.
More than anything else, switching Swihart, even getting him ready to try playing other positions on occasion, would just take away from his chances to continue gaining experience behind the plate. Stunting his growth at the position where he brings the most to the table both now and in the future in order to maybe make him viable elsewhere just doesn't make much sense.
Really, Swihart switching positions just isn't worth considering for a good few years. If there's something at stake for Swihart, it's his ability to maintain offensive production deep into his career, in the event that his knees start to go. And, cold though it may be to say, that's just not that important to the Red Sox right now. They may want to look at it down the road in the event that his bat improves to the point where he'd be a strong threat for other positions and they lock him up long-term. But for now, what matters most to Boston are the six years of team control they have right now.
Good news: Dave Dombrowski certainly seems aware of it. Speaking this past weekend, Dombrowski hit most of the major points when asked about trying Swihart out elsewhere in spring:
"Not at this point," Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said at the Red Sox Baseball Winter Weekend event at Foxwoods Resort Casino this past weekend. "I can't rule anything out for the future, but right now he's our No. 1 catcher. ... Right now, Blake has made some nice strides. He needs to continue to work on that skill set on a daily basis. So I think right now that will be our focus."
Maybe somewhere down the line, the Red Sox find themselves with catching talent burning a hole in their pockets and clear needs at other positions. Maybe then they should start to think about breaking up their young catching duo. But even then, the reality is that switching a player like Blake Swihart off catcher is just throwing value away. It's so much harder to find a player like him behind the plate than in the outfield. To the point where they'd likely be better off finding a trade to fill their needs than disrupting Swihart from his spot behind the plate.
Best bet, though, they never get to that point. Best bet, Blake Swihart is the catcher, and he's the catcher for a long time to come. Christian Vazquez might be his backup, or maybe he's too good to be that, and they find someone willing to pony up for a young catcher with a superlative glove. Either way, Swihart's best position both in terms of present skill and future value is behind the plate, and that's where he should stay.