The catching competition the Red Sox anticipated to have this year--Christian Vazquez versus Blake Swihart--was supposed to help decide who would be the team's starting catcher for years to come, and potentially give the team another trade asset. This thought, of course, came in utopia. A utopia without injuries, where players are allowed to progress at their own pace, and perform up to their potential.
Vazquez, of course, felt a twinge in his arm during spring training last year before doctors told him that Tommy John surgery was a necessity. Ryan Hanigan began the year as the starting catcher, complemented by Sandy Leon. And then Hanigan fractured his hand when a ball struck his hand, necessitating a Blake Swihart call-up months ahead of schedule, and almost a full season before anyone anticipated him needing to suit up as the starting catcher for the Red Sox.
Swihart struggled out of the gate, which was only to be expected, but certainly found his stride in the second half, hitting .303/.353/.452 and practically locking up the starting catcher position for Opening Day. Vazquez, meanwhile, will start the season in the minor leagues, according to Red Sox manager John Farrell, despite the team anticipating the Puerto Rican backstop being 100 percent healthy for the first day of camp down in Fort Myers.
The decision makes sense for the Red Sox; Swihart is generally a much more highly-regarded catching prospect than Vazquez due to his higher offensive ceiling. And when considering his success offensively last season, the team has no reason not to give him the opportunity to prove he can do it over the course of a full season while handling the duties of being a major league starting catcher. Vazquez, on the other hand, still has minor league options remaining, is only 25 years old, and will be rusty out of the gate.
At the very least, Vazquez gives the Red Sox very strong depth in the minor leagues behind veteran Ryan Hanigan. The memory of Vazquez's golden arm still remains firmly planted in the minds of many, and given Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski's optimism with the throwing program, there is still reason to be optimistic that we haven't seen the last of him throwing darts down to second base to thwart potential base stealers even in the wake of his surgery.
"He’s been pain-free throughout the whole winter with the throwing program. But we really won’t know until he gets down there, when you start throwing to the bases and start throwing hard, how his arm responds at that point," Dombrowski told media at Red Sox Winter Weekend. "All the indications from the doctors are that it should be fine. But right now it’s only speculation until he gets down there and does it on a day-in, day-out basis."
There's a certain sour taste when one realizes that Vazquez missed his big opportunity to take a firm grasp of the starting catcher job last season when considering his unlimited defensive potential, which might be compared even with that of St. Louis Cardinals whiz Yadier Molina. Still, while we'd all hope for the best, injuries happen, players wear down, and sophomore slumps can be tough to avoid. This is as true for Blake Swihart as for Vazquez, making it too early to write off Vazquez' chances of getting another shot at the starting role.
What was the Red Sox' best move of the offseason?
For what's seemed like a momentous offseason, the Red Sox have really only made four moves. And while the David Price deal may seem like the obvious choice for the best, it faces some stiff competition from a different angle.
The reality with Vazquez is that regardless of how his bat develops -- and there are certainly signs he could be a solid hitter at the plate -- he will receive opportunities to receive significant playing time at the major league level as long as he remains one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Jose Molina played for what literally seemed like 50 years based solely on the fact that he was a great defensive catcher. Molina, for his career, only hit .233/.282/.327 while averaging around 2.6 home runs per season. Vazquez has the potential to not only be a better offensive catcher than Molina, but a significantly better defensive catcher as well. Regardless of what happens in Boston, Christian Vazquez will continue to receive significant opportunities to play at the major league level.
The days of imagining Christian Vazquez as the starting backstop for the Red Sox certainly aren't over. Blake Swihart could move to another position, which Ben Buchanan eloquently argued shouldn't happen, or could get injured or be part of a major trade package for a starter or Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or Ted Williams (maybe they'll finally perfect cloning technology in the next few years, who knows?). But as long as Swihart remains in good condition with Boston, the window of opportunity for Vazquez to make an impact for the Red Sox will never get too wide. But whether it's in Boston or elsewhere, on his golden, generational glove alone, there's no question that he'll make an impact at the major league level.