Blake Swihart began 2016 the same way he ended 2015: as the starting catcher for the Red Sox. A couple weeks into 2016's regular season, though, and Swihart found himself back in Triple-A, with the now-healthy Christian Vazquez -- the starter from the second-half of 2014 and the presumed starting backstop for 2015 prior to Tommy John surgery -- taking over. The move on its own generated debate, as there are pro-Swihart and pro-Vazquez camps, but then an additional wrinkle was thrown in: Swihart might end up playing in the outfield at some point in order to fit both players in the majors.
Swihart was sent down to Triple-A to work on his defense and his ability to run a pitching staff, so -- understandably -- the decision to also have him work on his outfield defense came as a surprise. However, President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski made it clear that Swihart is in Triple-A to catch, and that the outfield time is more of a pre-game, chasing fly balls sort of thing than it is about becoming one of Pawtucket's outfielders. Swihart had his first of those hours of outfield time this past Sunday.
This is partly because the Sox don't know what they want Swihart to be just yet. His defense maybe isn't where it needs to be for a competitive big-league team, but it's unclear if Vazquez's bat is capable of the same. If the pitching staff prefers throwing to Vazquez, though, and Vazquez's presence and ability to block balls and frame pitches makes him the more valuable backstop, then Swihart will need somewhere else to play. Hence, figuring out if he still remembers how to play the outfield.
That "still remembers" is the key bit there: Swihart was an outfielder during the first half of high school, and also for USA's 18-and-under national team. When he was first introduced to the pros after the 2011 draft, the question with Swihart was whether his defense behind the plate -- which showed promise for someone with so little experience, but still came from someone with little experience -- would be ready for the majors by the time his bat was. Among the alternative positions, should the defense not be there when the rest of the package was needed, was a corner outfield spot thanks to his impressive athleticism.
It should be remembered that Swihart was knowingly rushed into the majors in 2015 when Vazquez was already out and then Ryan Hanigan was injured, leaving Boston with just Sandy Leon in the majors. Neither Swihart's bat nor glove were ready for the promotion, and it showed, though, the former at least managed to catch up and thrive by the time the season ended: Swihart hit .303/.353/.452 from July 20 onward after returning from the disabled list. That's great news for the offensive side of things, but his defense was a significant reason for why the original plan was to keep him in Triple-A throughout the year, and missing time with injury didn't help him with that at all.
While Swihart made strides defensively throughout the minors, he's still not the catcher Vazquez is, and likely will never be -- that's not a knock against Swihart so much as it is praise for Vazquez. The Red Sox aren't ready to give up on Swihart's development behind the plate, not months after Dombrowski labeled Swihart as a piece of the foundation in Boston, but like with Xander Bogaerts transitioning to third in late-2013 after a minor-league career at shortstop, putting it on hold could be best for the team in the short run -- Bogaerts, like Swihart, needed more time for his defense, but the Sox needed what his bat could potentially be right then.
The Red Sox clearly do not trust Rusney Castillo right now. He was sent to Triple-A after losing the starting left field job during spring training to utility player Brock Holt, after the Sox didn't bother to make room on their roster for David Murphy before his opt-out. Moving Swihart to left for 2016, were it to happen, is not some Hanley Ramirez redux or even the equivalent of shifting Bogaerts to third. It's a return to a position he used to play as an amateur, assuming he still knows how to track a fly ball, and done because the Sox think he's the answer at a position where they currently lack one.
A lineup with both Swihart and Vazquez in it, one where Holt isn't expected to be an every day player, is a much better one than any that features just Holt and one of the two backstops. Vazquez's defense is superb and he's less limited offensively than Ryan Hanigan. Swihart's bat has real potential for average, walks, and some power, and he could easily settle into being a useful piece in left field so long as the defense is there. It's not a long-term solution to the Swihart/Vazquez question, but it might be the right one for 2016 with the Sox hoping to win now in one of their only guaranteed years of David Price and their final season of David Ortiz.
In the long-term? If Swihart can play left field, having him split time between left and catching could be a viable solution, with Vazquez behind the plate the rest of the time. That way, the Red Sox get the better of the two bats out there daily or at least near-daily, while the superior defender, game-caller, and so on gets the most time catching. Maybe the long-term solution is Swihart back behind the plate, splitting time basically down the middle with Vazquez -- while the defense isn't there yet outside of his arm, it still could be given more time to develop.
Maybe there is a trade in the future for one of these two backstops so they don't need to figure out how to juggle them, even if Swihart does end up capable in left -- Andrew Benintendi isn't that far away, you know, and Yoan Moncada might end up needing to move to the outfield, too. Maybe Vazquez fails to hit well at all in the majors and the Sox need to decide between a defense-first catcher and a bat-first one as their primary player like we all assumed was the case before this all went down, and all of this gnashing of teeth and prognosticating turns out to be pointless.
Regardless of which future it is, playing Swihart in the outfield now (or more realistically, a month from now when Vazquez has a firmer hold on the catching job) isn't going to ruin him or his chances to thrive in the majors someday. He's 24 years old, and in the grand scheme of things, is still relatively new to catching. It takes time to train a catcher to be exactly what a team might want one to be, so he could use more innings behind the plate, but the Red Sox could also use Swihart's very much ready bat in the meantime.
He's in a situation where he either needs to take his lumps behind the plate in games that matter, head to the minors to work on his defense in games that don't but miss out on valuable big-league development at the plate, or split the difference and find a new place to get his bat into games in order to help both Swihart and the Sox. The Sox haven't fully committed to any of the three ideas yet, but it feels like the third is imminent so long as Vazquez can prove he should be the starting catcher. And if so, it's going to be okay for everyone involved: it's not the best use of Swihart for Swihart, probably, but it might be the best use of Swihart for the Sox.