Did you know there are two items on the Red Sox’ to-do list between now and Opening Day, at least in terms of roster-building? You probably did know that, because it’s been mentioned daily by me and pretty much anyone else who talks about the team at least semi-professionally for a couple of months now. We’re still waiting for Boston to address the bullpen, something many of us (certainly me) probably thought would be done by now. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
Instead, we’ll talk about the other item on the to-do list: Settling the catcher situation. This one always had a chance to last longer than the search for bullpen help, and while there have been suggestions to the contrary by those in the know I still think it’s possible the Red Sox don’t settle their trio behind the plate until mid-March. As a quick reminder, for the second year in a row Boston has three catchers without minor-league options, and it’s almost impossible to see them holding all three again in 2019. Given that catcher is the position most likely to see an injury at any given time — not including pitchers, of course — it wouldn’t be crazy for the Red Sox to hold on to all three for a bit in spring training before making a decision, but if everyone is healthy then a decision is certainly coming.
This is something we’ve talked about a bunch over the last few months since, you know, it’s one of two things that we know needs to happen but hasn’t yet. Back in mid-November, I took a look at all of the potential options the team had with their catchers and my final conclusion was that I’d cut bait with Sandy León and stick with a duo of Christian Vázquez and Blake Swihart. I’ve thought about that more, and while I still wouldn’t exactly be upset by that playing out, I’ve changed my mind. Before we get into specific scenarios, however, it’s worth noting that it probably doesn’t matter too much! It is, quite frankly, impossible for things to be worse than they were a year ago when the Red Sox still managed to put together one of the best seasons of all time. All three catchers played at one point or another, and all three were similarly terrible. I can’t emphasize the world terrible enough here. There’s nowhere to go but up. I think. I hope.
As a team, no one even came close to the futility the Red Sox showed behind the plate. Catcher is weak everywhere, but Boston took it to another level in 2018. By fWAR, admittedly not my favorite stat, the trio cost the team 2.1 wins over the course of the season. The next worst team (Arizona) clocked in at -0.4 wins. The only other team in my lifetime (since 1991) to perform worse at the position was the 2000 Expos. Now, I think there is certainly aspects of catching that aren’t included in fWAR and things like gamecalling make them more valuable than this number would let on, but they were bad whichever way you slice it. It’s a matter of degree of badness. At the plate in particular, they were a mess. As a group they finished the year with a 44 wRC+, meaning they were 56 worse than the league-average hitter. That’s atrocious, and only four catching tandems since ‘91 have been worse.
This isn’t to dwell on one of the very few negatives from a season filled with unbelievable positives, though. Like I said, them being that bad means it’s hard to imagine them being worse in 2019, and there are legitimate reasons for optimism. Vázquez is most likely to be the starting catcher of whatever duo is left over once Opening Day rolls around, and he showed in the postseason and throughout 2017 that he’s a better hitter than his 2018 numbers would suggest. He’s not J.T. Realmuto, obviously, but something around the league-average catcher’s wRC+ of 84 isn’t out of the question. Swihart has the most upside as we know, and when he got more consistent playing time he did at least look better at the plate even if the numbers never translated. León, well, he was pretty much as bad as is humanly possible for an actual major-league baseball player. I can’t imagine things getting worse than they already were.
Now, when trying to figure out who to keep and who to jettison — whether it be via trade or by designating one for assignment — you have to consider the warning signs for each, too. While Vázquez has shown real potential to be passable at the plate, he also had periods of disastrous production with the bat in 2014 and 2016. Swihart looked a bit better with playing time, but he also still has never put up numbers in the majors and a lot of projections seem to be coming from a place of wanting him to still be the guy we once thought he’d be. León, well, he’s been really bad with the bat more often than not and his one good streak was fueled by absurd batted ball luck.
All of this brings me to one point from which I can’t seem to escape: Defense is all that matters here. That’s clearly where the Red Sox are coming from, because if they cared about offense from this position they’d at least pretend to show some interest in a catcher from out of the organization. And, if defense is what matters, then Swihart has to be the guy who is traded. Now, I think the organization holds responsibility for his development, and his defense isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be by some, but there’s no doubt he’s the worst defensive option of the three.
If we acknowledge the Red Sox are trying to win right now above all else, and that the most important skill for whoever they keep at catcher is how they deal with the pitchers, then I think Swihart is the clear odd man out. As I said above, I wouldn’t be upset if they went in another direction and I don’t think any of these options are quite good enough that they have to be held. That said, given the context of the roster and the fact that all of the options have significant offensive red flags, the best option is probably a Vázquez/León duo. Ask me again in a couple weeks, though, and maybe I’ll have changed my mind again.