Not all that long ago, I wrote about the lack of position player depth for the Red Sox in the high minors and specifically how that affected Blake Swihart. The conclusion was that the catcher/utility player pretty much had to stay on the roster, not because he’s done anything particularly well but rather because there aren’t any other options. It’s been a little more than two weeks since I wrote that post. I’ve changed my mind. The Red Sox need to think long and hard about cutting bait with Swihart now, even if it means going back to a short bench.
To put it simply, Swihart has added nothing to the Red Sox this year. We all know that he hasn’t really gotten a chance to play consistently, and that could certainly be playing into the lack of performance at the plate. At the same time, Alex Cora has no reason give him more time in the lineup when he’s hitting .158/.220/.184 for a wRC+ of 8. Eight! Like I said, he’s certainly not that bad and sporadic playing time isn’t helping matters, but the Red Sox are in a close division race that will be the difference between an actual first-round series and a one-game playoff. They aren’t exactly in a position to try and see what they have in Swihart.
So, they have a player that isn’t playing much and when he is playing he is contributing nothing. I’m not a big believer in WAR numbers, particularly in these small samples, but just to make a point consider that Swihart has been worth -0.6 fWAR in 35 games. That is a -2.8 win pace over 162 games. Essentially, his roster spot has been a wasted one all year long. The season is now halfway over, and while the Red Sox have been playing outstanding baseball it’s come with a 24-man roster. Boston doesn’t have a ton of high-end depth, but they have to have someone who can contribute something, which is more than they have now.
The biggest argument about cutting Swihart now is that he could be used in a trade. That is, presumably, the only reason he is still on the roster. If Dave Dombrowski didn’t think he had any trade value, he’d get it over with and designate him for assignment. However, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to lose Swihart for nothing. I’m not sure that is worth it. Presumably, Swihart doesn’t have that much trade value. I can’t imagine he’ll be the centerpiece of any trade made this summer, but instead would be a throw-in for any deal. They have other pieces in the organization that can replicate that value. The question becomes a matter of what’s more valuable: Swihart’s roster spot right now or whatever player would represent Swihart in this hypothetical trade package. To me, given how close the division race is and how any little thing can be the difference between first and second place, using that roster spot on something of some value is more valuable right now.
As for how to use that spot, as I mentioned above it would probably have to be with another pitcher. The only healthy position player who is on the 40-man roster who is not on the active roster is Sam Travis, and he hasn’t earned a spot in the majors. There is enough versatility with a catcher/Brock Holt/Tzu-Wei Lin bench, particularly with J.D. Martinez around to fill in in the outfield when needed. It’s certainly not an ideal construction of the roster, but it would be temporary until a trade filled the final bench spot.
In the meantime, they could add another pitcher to the mix, which would help in a couple of different ways. For one thing, it would give them another arm to limit the workload on everyone else. Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly are going to pitch as often as you need them to, but there’s not a ton of benefit to pushing the other relievers. With, say, Justin Haley or Bobby Poyner in the extra spot, the Red Sox can avoid having to overuse someone like Brandon Workman who has the potential to play a bigger role later in the year.
Carrying an extra pitcher would also give the team a chance to see what they have in some untested relievers. That includes Tyler Thornburg, who could be back as soon as next week, and Ty Buttrey, among others. Nothing should preclude Boston from trying to improve the bullpen via trade next month, but it never hurts to have as full a picture as possible as to what you have. In a way, that Swihart spot could be used as an experiment. Guys like Jalen Beeks and Chandler Shepherd could be tested as relievers in that role, and even Williams Jerez could get a look.
Like I said before, this is not the most efficient way to build a roster, but it’s also presumably temporary. We know that they are trying to acquire another bench piece, and we also know they are hoping for a return from Dustin Pedroia. When either of those happens, they could go back to a traditional balance between pitchers and position players. With Swihart on the roster, the Red Sox have essentially played a man down. It’d be preferable to play with an unbalanced, not-ideal roster than a shortened one, and that means cutting bait with Swihart sooner rather than later.