The Red Sox entered last week with a six-game homestand against two rebuilding teams in the Tigers and the White Sox. They ended up with a disappointing 3-3 record at the end of that stretch, and while their pitching was phenomenal the offense struggled mightily without Mookie Betts. They (hopefully) won’t be without their star outfielder — nor without Dustin Pedroia — for too much longer, but this week did illustrate the real lack of depth at the bottom of this roster. Things shouldn’t stay quite as bad for many of the players involved here, but it is an issue that needs to be figured out. Overall, it’s an issue that is bigger than just one player, but for today I am going to focus on a lone member of this group in Blake Swihart
Obviously, Swihart has been a major point of focus for Red Sox fans this year despite not really ever playing all that important of a role. In fact, that focus goes all the way back to spring training when he got off to a hot start in Fort Myers. From that point on there was clamoring for his playing time, but that never really came until Hanley Ramirez was designated for assignment and everyday at bats opened up. Swihart hasn’t filled in on a daily basis, but he’s certainly playing on a much more consistent basis of late. Unfortunately, he isn’t doing anything with these opportunities. Despite that, the Red Sox kind of have to stick with him, right?
Well, we know that Boston can’t option Swihart, as he would have been in Pawtucket if that had been, well, an option. So, they either need to stick with him at the major-league level or cut bait completely. It’s been a question they’ve been dealing with all year, but it’s coming up again as he fails to take advantage of his newfound playing time. To answer, the Red Sox need to look at two things: Whether or not he can significantly improve and whether or not they have alternatives readily available that make the team better.
We’ll start with the question of improvement, and as I said it would have to be pretty substantial improvement. To say Swihart has been disappointing at the plate would be quite the understatement. Through his first 70 plate appearances on the year, the 26-year-old has hit just .156/.229/.188 for a wRC+ of 12. In other words, he has been 88 percent worse than the league-average hitter this season. For more context, consider that among the 400 MLB players with at least 50 plate appearances this year, only seven of them have been worse than Swihart by wRC+. That is....well, it’s not encouraging.
As far as improvement goes, there are a couple different ways you can look this. On the one hand, you can look a little bit deeper into his numbers to see how sustainable his poor performance is. For example, he’s striking out a ton, but his plate discipline stats — such as how often he swings and misses and how often he swings at balls — are right around average. That would suggest fewer strikeouts in his future. Furthermore, his batted ball profile includes an above-average amount of hard contact and a below-average amount of soft contact, which would suggest substantial improvement on his .227 batting average on balls in play.
On the other hand, while the deeper numbers are better than his overall numbers suggest, they are a reflection of what has happened and not necessarily what we can expect to happen in the future. As we’re dealing with a small sample here, we still need to draw from Swihart’s past. The unfortunate truth is that, for a multitude of reasons, it’s been four years since he really hit well as a professional. Because of that, projections aren’t very optimistic about him moving forward. Fangraphs has four separate projections on their player pages — ZiPS, Steamer, Depth Chart and THE BAT — and those projections range wRC+’s from 55 to 67 moving forward. Not ideal.
So, Swihart is going to be better than the 12 wRC+ he’s posted to this point in the year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be useful for the rest of the year. That being said, it’s not clear that the Red Sox have a better option. When the first of Betts or Pedroia returns from injury, a pitcher will go back and all the bats on the roster should be safe. When the second comes back, a hitter will have to go down. Sam Travis has minor-league options and has also not been impressive this year (or last year, to be frank), so that’s a relatively easy call.
With that being the case, it comes down to whether or not there’s a minor-league position player who could justify a roster spot over Swihart. Tzu-Wei Lin has the best case, as he has a higher floor with his bat and provides more value with the defense. In terms of overall value, he’s a better option than Swihart. That being said, the role he’d best fill is already being filled by Brock Holt, and Swihart can at least separate himself by being able to fill in behind the plate. Beyond Lin, there are no other minor-league position players on the 40-man roster, and the next most intriguing — outside of arguably Rusney Castillo, who won’t be called up for financial reasons — would be someone like Adam Lind or Cole Sturgeon. That is to say, whoever it is isn’t very intriguing. This team’s position player depth is rough right now.
Ultimately, I think the Red Sox have to roll with Swihart even if I’m not a huge believer that he can turn things around. The fact of the matter is that there aren’t better alternatives in the organization right now, and there are at least some numbers that could point towards improvement on the horizon if you squint hard enough. The Ramirez DFA represented sink-or-swim time for Swihart, and that’s going to continue, at least until they trade for more depth between now and July.