The Red Sox roster, despite faltering a bit to end last week’s west-coast road trip, is running like a machine through the early parts of the 2018 season. The rotation, which just recently got to full health (at least in terms of their best five starters), has been lights out with quality starts on a seemingly daily basis. The bullpen hasn’t been needed in big spots a ton, but overall pretty much everyone is doing their job when called upon. The lineup has had its quiet moments here and there but for the most part they are buying into the new coaches’ new strategies and they have given their pitchers countless early leads this season. This is what Dave Dombrowski envisioned when he put this roster together. All of that being said, there is still one strange part of this team that I can’t really figure out, and that is with the three catchers. It was understandable to keep all three out of spring training, but the more we see it in action the more questions all three guys have around them.
Christian Vazquez is the least questionable of the catchers, of course, but there are still some doubts about the offense. He’s taken a big step back since last year and he’s lending credence to those who believe his 2017 was almost entirely a fluke. Sandy Leon is two years removed from his offensive breakout and he has been almost a complete non-factor at the plate over the last two years. In fact, among the 303 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances since the start of 2017, only two (Adam Engel and Adam Rosales) have been worse hitters by wRC+. Then there’s Blake Swihart, who I’m not even sure we can call a catcher at this point. Even with Alex Cora rotating players in an out to, in his words, make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute, Swihart has hardly found himself in games. It’s entirely unclear where he stands on this roster.
Speaking of Cora, the manager’s usage of the catchers in general has been a bit strange all season. The new skipper has overall had a strongly positive impact on this team in the early going, but one consistent criticism that I think is fair is that he is not taking advantage of having three catchers on his roster. One of the big advantages here is that it would ostensibly mean the Red Sox would be more likely and more willing to pinch hit or pinch run for one of the weakest hitting and slowest positions on the diamond. Instead, he has left his starter in for just about every game this year. A perfect example here was on Sunday when Vazquez hit for himself in two big spots with Leon on the bench and Swihart in as the DH if they needed a catcher on an emergency basis when he could have used Mookie Betts or Hanley Ramirez as a pinch hitter. The Red Sox have players like Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia and Marco Hernandez coming back from injury soon, and one has to wonder with some upcoming roster crunches combined with Cora (for whatever reason) not really being willing to take advantage of having a third catcher if they will look to move one of the backstops off the roster.
I think it probably goes without saying that this conversation really comes down to Swihart or Leon. Vazquez hasn’t been hitting, but he is the stablest player of this group with his strong defensive skill set. Plus, the team extended him prior to the season so clearly they are comfortable with him on the roster. I think it’s also fair to assume that either Leon or Swihart would be claimed on waivers if they were simply designated for assignment in hopes of sneaking them off the 40-man and onto Pawtucket’s roster. Leon’s defense is too good and Swihart has too much upside for there to be no team that would want them on their roster given the dearth of catching around the league. The most common line of thought around this discussion has been that the team should trade one of these guys, but are we really sure they would get anything of real value back?
Swihart would seem to have the most trade value, at least by name value. As mentioned above, he has some perceived upside as a former top prospect who’s been hindered by injury and is still only 26 years old. That being said, that upside mostly comes at the plate, and he hasn’t been an above-average hitter at any level with at least 100 plate appearances since 2014. Again, injuries play a role here but you can’t just ignore these numbers. Plus, the offensive upside was mostly associated with him as a catcher; his hitting skills never translated nearly as well if he were to have to move to another position. Which brings us to the catching. The Red Sox haven’t used him behind the plate at all and didn’t really use him there a ton last year, either. I think it’s clear that this team doesn’t view him as a catcher and you have to wonder if other teams do either. At the very least, you have to wonder if they’d be willing to trade value commensurate with him being a catcher.
As for Leon, the argument against his trade value is more straight-forward. It all comes down to the offense. I think teams would like to have him on the roster as a backup. He’s still in his prime as a 29-year-old, and by all accounts he’s a strong defensive backstop with whom pitchers really like to work. That said, there are other defense-first backups out there that wouldn’t cost something of even minimal value off a minor-league roster.
The team that is most mentioned as a trade partner is, of course, the Mets. New York has gotten off to a good start this season but they recently lost both of their catchers to injury. Travis d’Arnaud will miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery and Kevin Plawecki is out with a broken hand. So, it would make sense that they’d want another catcher. However, they may not be as desperate as people think. The Mets seems to like Plawecki more than the general public and he is only expected to miss 3-4 weeks. There’s really no need for them to break the bank for another backup-quality catcher, and that’s really what the Red Sox have here. If they were to make a trade it would be for someone like J.T. Realmuto or Jonathan Lucroy, I’d think.
Ultimately, I’m not really sure what the Red Sox are supposed to do here. I still think Swihart has enough intrigue that I wouldn’t want to give him away for free, but I’m not certain enough about his defense to make him the lone backup without a Leon there for insurance. I’m also not sure Cora is willing to take advantage of this situation and instead it feels they are wasting a roster spot. In an ideal world they could make a trade and at least get back something to offset the downside of losing either of them, whether it be a legitimate help in the bullpen or a piece to help boost the farm a bit. I just am not sure why a team would be motivated to give that up for either guy at this point. I wish I had a stronger conclusion here and a definitive path I would take, but the truth is my main conclusion is that I don’t envy Dave Dombrowski’s position here. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯