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The Red Sox will have some trouble carrying three catchers

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They have to try, but it’ll be hard to work out.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

This offseason has been a complete and utter drag so far, both for the Red Sox and the league as a whole. Since free agency has really opened, Doug Fister (!) has been the best player to change teams. I don’t know if this is because of Shohei Ohtani, Giancarlo Stanton, Scott Boras or some other reason, but it is making things really slow. Of course, at some point the real player movement will begin and the Red Sox are still expected to be in the thick of things. Most (all?) of the talk has been around first base and the outfield to this point, largely because this is a team in desperate need of power and that’s where the power bats are. There’s a little talk around their bullpen and rotations as well, but the power is the big focus.

Amid all of that, though, I just can’t stop thinking about the situation behind the plate for this team. It’s certainly not the focus of the offseason, and really there’s an argument to be made that it’s the least exciting on-the-field position for the Red Sox looking ahead to 2018. This isn’t a place I’m looking for Boston to make an addition, however. Instead, there’s a roster crunch looming here at some point, and I’m really curious as to how the team is going to solve it assuming it really does come to fruition at some point.

As the majority of you know, teams generally only carry two catchers, but the Red Sox have three guys who will be vying for time on the major-league roster. Christian Vazquez is the shoo-in of the trio. The longtime defensive wizard showed massive improvement with the bat in 2017 and will almost certainly head into next season as the team’s primary catcher. It would be a surprise if he wasn’t ready to work with each and every pitcher on the staff by the time the regular season begins. Sandy Leon has been on the major-league roster for the better part of two years and took the league by storm in the summer of 2016. That proved to be a mirage, but we’re still talking about a strong defensive catcher (though not as strong as Vazquez’) who has flashes at the plate. Then, there’s Blake Swihart, who has been the odd man out for the last couple of years. His 2017 was marred by injury and poor performance (the latter is likely related to the former) but there is still similar upside with the 25-year-old compared to his days as a top prospect. At least, that’s the hope.

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

These three have been in the organization for a few years now, and there was a similar type of roster crunch heading into the 2017 season as well. However, there was one key difference with that situation compared to this one. Last year, Swihart had one minor-league option remaining, which allowed them to hide him in Pawtucket all year. His lack of health and poor performance made that situation easy, but if you’ll recall the hope was that he’d push his way to the majors at some point in the summer. That never happened, and now the decision has been pushed back to this spring. All three players have legitimate arguments to stick around, and they need to figure out how to get through this roster crunch.

The hope for the Red Sox, and many fans, is that they’ll be able to carry all three catchers. In order to make this more feasible, Swihart is becoming a more versatile player, getting time in the corner infield, corner outfield and even second base. His catcher defense has never really been the reason he was a prospect anyway, and while he’s still much more valuable as a catcher, being able to play all around the diamond is the way to make carrying a third catcher work. At the very least, it would buy them a little more time to make this decision, one that almost certainly comes down to Swihart and Leon.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as simply putting Swihart on the bench as a super-sub and moving on. There are other moving pieces on this roster as well, and the Red Sox are going to have to make a tough decision somewhere or another. If Boston just signs one bat to fill in at either first base or designated hitter, they are still left with only four bench spots for Leon, Swihart, Deven Marrero, Sam Travis, Bryce Brentz, Brock Holt and Tzu-Wei Lin. (This alignment is with Marco Hernandez starting at second base.) Like Swihart, Marrero and Brentz are out of options. Travis, meanwhile, could prove necessary if Hanley Ramirez is forced back to first base on a regular basis, as they’ll want someone who can actually play the position to be available off the bench. Holt is a non-tender candidate, but if he sticks around he certainly will be on the major-league roster. That’s already five players if you include only one of the catchers. Carrying both Leon and Swihart sounds great, but it’s a lot harder than it seems.

This is the part of the program where we acknowledge that these types of situations are hard to plan out. Things change at the snap of a finger and we have no idea what types of injuries could pop up in camp to make all of this moot. That being said, the idea of carrying three catchers is great in theory but a lot harder in practice. Although Swihart’s newfound versatility is a great addition to his game, the Red Sox really need a more trustworthy backup at all of the positions he can play. In the end, his most valuable position is still as a catcher, and if he sticks around with the Red Sox it will be because they trust him to be one of their two primary backstops. I’m still not sure where I come down if the Red Sox do need to move on from one of these catchers, but I’m becoming more convinced carrying all three could be more trouble than it’s worth.