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Swihart, Vazquez will enable Red Sox to gamble on Sandy Leon

Even with everything he's done in 2016, Sandy Leon is still no sure thing. But with so much young talent to turn to if things go wrong, the Red Sox can afford to gamble that this is a breakout year rather than a fluke.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Any day now, Sandy Leon is going to turn back into a pumpkin.

As the Red Sox struggled through an ugly homestand and a mediocre road trip, failing to win series against the likes of the Angels and Twins, this fear lingered in the backs of many a fan's mind. If this was the Red Sox team with a productive catcher, what do they look like with the old Sandy Leon behind the plate?

The good news: he hasn't, and hopefully this four-game winning streak is actually a sign that things have changed for the Sox so we never have to find out. His version of flagging was to hit .355/.375/.581 in July--a figure which only looks weak compared to the performances of June and August surrounding it.

I would like to be able to come in here and declare that there's nothing to worry about anymore. That Leon is through the small sample size danger period where the clock could strike midnight at any minute. But he's not. The reality is we've seen all of 141 plate appearances out of Leon now. Choose any year, check the first-half stats, and you'll find someone or other playing solidly out of their minds for longer than Leon has. Sometimes they'll even last the full season but, with the benefit of looking back on this from so many years in the future, we know they didn't keep it up. I chose 2010, for instance, and was reminded of Daric Barton, Superstar. He pulled it off for nearly 700 plate appearances that year, with only one month falling even slightly below average, and has barely been heard from since.

Leon, then, is no sure thing. Not in the least. But he's not guaranteed to disappear, either. No, he's not going to hit .389/.439/.635--this we can say with some certainty. There's a .468 BABIP standing solidly in his way which, if it were to hold up in the long-term, would leave Leon with a figure 78 points clear of the next closest competitor with at least 500 plate appearances in the last 145 years. But there's a lot more hope for him now than there was in 2015. His career numbers now look pretty solid for a catcher at .263/.326/.379. The numbers that are harder to fake are positive too, with Leon posting a career-low strikeout rate, walking slightly more often than his career average, and hitting five homers in 141 plate appearances where he managed just the one in his first 235.

There is, in short, too much here to simply brush aside as a fluke and move on from. The good news for the Red Sox is that, going forward in 2016 and moving into 2017, they're in the perfect position to avoid having to make a real decision at catcher.

Let's say Leon keeps on keeping on in the last six weeks of the season (and, hopefully, through whatever postseason run the Red Sox might manage). Under those circumstances, he's pretty much earned at least a chance to start in 2017 (he's under team control for three more years). At another time, that might leave the Red Sox in an awkward position, trying to give Leon the chance he deserves while still finding a backup option who can take over in the event that Leon reverts to the unimpressive backup type he was in 2015 and earlier. At most positions that's hard to manage in free agency and on the trade market. At catcher? It's damn near impossible, so limited are the options.

The Red Sox, however, don't need new talent, since they've already got the names in house in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart.

Photo credit: Adam Glanzman

Vazquez, realistically, is a bit up against it at this point. There's being a weak hitter, and then there's Vazquez, who's thus far come in at .226/.278/.305 on the year. Now, that's better than Mario Mendoza, both in terms of raw numbers and relative to the league. But there's no real science behind the Mendoza line, and the Red Sox have shown they're not willing to put up with Vazquez' bat to get his glove behind the plate--or at least they weren't this past month. And this is from an organization which almost certainly has more substantial defensive statistics than we have access to. They need to see more from him if they're going to believe he's anything more than a defensive backup in the future, but we're certainly not at the point in his career where that's outside the realm of possibility. He's at 377 career plate appearances at age 25 with a completely lost year mixed in the middle.

Swihart, too, needs to rebuild, but from a different direction. The Sox swapping him for Vazquez was either a reactionary attempt to save a flagging pitching staff or simply a concession to seniority if you accept the idea that Swihart never stepped beyond the role of "injury fill-in" for Vazquez. Either way, Swihart's defensive deficiencies--and they do exist, with the only real question being one of magnitude--haven't proven untenable in even the sample that Vazquez' bat has. He'll also need to show not only that his bat is back at 100% after his ankle injury come 2017, but also hopefully still on the way up.

But if the Red Sox don't have a guaranteed All-Star as a backup--shocker, that--they've certainly got the depth options to let them give Leon a full chance to keep right on rolling.

And realistically, unless things go very wrong in the weeks to come, that's what we're very likely to see in 2017. So perhaps a better question is how they do handle those backups?

I think the most likely scenario would involve Swihart starting the year in Triple-A as a full-time catcher, simply because Vazquez is the guy with the backup perception, and because Vazquez makes more sense to use as sort of a targeted batterymate for struggling pitchers who might need the help. He's not a miracle worker, but he can at least make a difference.

There is, however, a scenario where Swihart would make significantly more sense, and that's if the Red Sox do not replace David Ortiz in the traditional manner.

Right now, many seem to think the Red Sox will sign one of the big Toronto bats to replace their designated hitter. But the Red Sox way of handling the position--having one big bat whose job is to be the DH and little else--isn't really the standard these days. Instead most teams tend to rotate guys through the position for rest, getting their better bench bats playing time, and generally keeping everyone involved.

This is where Swihart comes in. Let's say the Red Sox decide to forego the addition of Encarnacion or Bautista or someone like them. The natural move is probably to give Yoan Moncada the keys to third base, push Shaw to first, and move Hanley to DH. But there's also the option to use that DH role the way so many other teams do. Leon holds down the fort behind the plate most of the time, with Swihart taking over to spell him, and spending much of the rest of his time at DH. When Swihart plays behind the plate, Hanley Ramirez or Dustin Pedroia or anyone else can take the opportunity to get out of the field for a day while staying in the lineup while one of the bench bats fills in. It's accepting a pretty major drop in production from the position, but also avoids committing a bunch of cash to filling the void left by Ortiz, perhaps allowing the Sox to shore up the bullpen or get creative in other areas.

Yes, that leaves Moncada out of the picture. No, it's not clear he needs any more time in the minors, but it's also not clear he needs to be called up immediately. He hasn't played in Triple-A yet (though that step isn't entirely necessary) and while his numbers are pretty overwhelming in Portland, there's still been a lot of strikeouts--an issue the Sox would love to see him iron out before asking him to make baseball's toughest transition. And if he doesn't debut until he's turned 22, is that really the end of the world?

Whoever the Sox turn to as the backup, however, the common thread is Sandy Leon, starting catcher. He's not this good, but he might be the best the Sox have, and maybe even the best they've had at the position in quite a while. They certainly owe it to themselves to find out just how much of this he can maintain. They're just fortunate that their (other) young backstops let them take the chance on Leon without risking a season of nothing from behind the plate should they leave the position on the backburner in the offseason.