Welcome to the 2021 positional preview series. Over the next seven days, we will be looking at each position group — catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, center field, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers — throughout the organization. For each installment we will take a look at the projected starter(s), the options to come off the bench, the depth pieces who will be waiting at the Alternate Site/at Triple-A, the top prospect, the sleeper prospect, all the rest of the prospects for each position, and where they stand in the division. We start things off today looking behind the dish.
It really wasn’t all that long ago that the Swihart Wars were happening, with Christian Vázquez looking like a side character who just was never going to hit enough to be an everyday player. The glove was there, but he couldn’t reach the low bar needed to be a starting catcher at the highest level. Fast forward to today, and he’s right up there with the top five to ten catchers in all of baseball.
Much of that still comes down to defense, where he checks all the boxes. Vázquez controls the running game, both with his throws down to second but also with his constant threat of attempting the back pick. He does a good job of keeping the ball in front of him. He’s an elite pitch framer. And he’s fantastic at working with the pitching staff. On top of that, over the last few years he’s become at least a league-average hitter, which is well above-average for catchers. Even if he takes a step back to something like a 95 wRC+, he’d be one of the better all-around backstops in baseball.
Combining with Vázquez, Plawecki helps give the Red Sox one of the better catching situations in the league. This is a position that is so hard for teams to fill, so the Red Sox being able to check this box off without much worry is a huge advantage. Plawecki far exceeded expectations at the plate last season, putting up a 134 wRC+. This will certainly come down this season as he was boosted by a wildly unsustainable batting average on balls in play, but there’s a long way to go before his performance is untenable for a backup. The real key, as we’ve recently discussed, will be the defense. But all in all, the Red Sox have to be happy with their situation here both in terms of their starter and their backup.
Jett Bandy, Chris Herrmann
Things get a little dicier when we start to talk about the third catcher candidates in the organization, at least to start the year. We’ll talk about some of the prospects and their potential to help out as the year goes on, but right now it’s probably these two. Both Bandy and Herrmann have experience at the highest level, but it’s been a few years since either was a usable option in the majors. Unless you have prospects knocking on the door, it’s hard for any team to feel good about their third catcher situation, but the Red Sox in particular seem light here. They’ll need at least a couple months of health from their catchers before the prospects could be ready to come on up.
Speaking of those prospects, the newest catching prospect in the organization is also the best. Hernández was acquired from the Rays last month in a trade that sent Chris Mazza and Jeffrey Springs to Tampa. The young catcher has his flaws on both sides of the ball, but he has a profile that should work at least off the bench. Defensively, his receiving skills are subpar, which is certainly a big deal in today’s game. Offensively, his pitch selection precludes him from truly tapping into his power.
The flaws aside, Hernández also has a great throwing arm behind the plate, and that aforementioned power also comes with very good bat-to-ball skills. He’s on the 40-man roster and will burn his second option this season, so I would expect they’d like him to be ready at some point this summer. That’s not to say they’ll rush him, and he’ll presumably start his Red Sox career in Portland, but if he gets off to a good start there he could leapfrog the veterans mentioned above on this depth chart.
This was a really tough call as the Red Sox catching prospects A) are not great as a group, and B) really have two guys who feel like cheating to call a sleeper and then a bunch of guys who don’t feel like sleepers. Out of that latter group I’m choosing Groshans. A former Kansas Jayhawk who was battery mates with fellow Red Sox prospects Ryan Zeferjahn, Groshans has a bat-first profile with a lot of potential variance. At the plate, he has a realistic path to fringe-average tools in both power and hit, which doesn’t sound great but is more than fine for a catcher. There’s, of course, a higher ceiling, but they’ll take that as a fallback option. The questions lie on defense, where he has the athleticism to succeed but was quite raw when we last saw him in 2019. He’ll need to refine those tools because his bat likely won’t play at any other spot. Look for him to start this season at Low-A Salem.
- Before Hernández entered the organization, Connor Wong was the clear top catching prospect. Part of the return in the Mookie Betts trade, he’s yet another big power/high whiff rate player in this organization. The key will be how much contact he makes to be able to tap into the very real raw power. Defensively, he can catch well enough to be a backup and provides extra value by being able to spend some time on the infield as well. He’ll likely join Hernández in Portland and could be on a similar timeline.
- Jhonny Pereda could be actually be the first of these prospects to push Bandy and/or Hermann to the side, though he also has a lower ceiling. There’s not a ton of offense here which pretty much takes him out of a future starting role, but he’s won a Gold Glove in the minors and could ride that defense to a backup job in the future.
- Enderson Lira was the other sleeper I was considering here, and really I didn’t go with him more because of a lack of information than anything to do with his skillset. He got the second highest singing bonus from the organization in this year’s international signing period, coming out of Venezuela. Baseball America notes he has good receiving skills and a good feel to barrel the baseball. He’ll play in the DSL this summer.
- Kole Cottam has gotten some action with the big leaguers in some spring games so far this year. A former fourth round pick, the defense could hold him back from really grabbing hold of a major-league future, but if he can improve that he has the offense to serve as a third catcher, or potentially even a backup, down the road. He’ll play this year at High-A Greenville.
- Roldani Baldwin is a long-time favorite of yours truly, though his development has been stunted by injury and then COVID wiping out last season. He’s been the best hitter of the organization’s glut of bat-first prospects, but he hasn’t played consistently since 2018. He’ll likely join Cottam on Greenville’s roster.
- Austin Rei is a former second round pick but things have never really come together. He’s vastly improved his defense since joining the organization, to his credit, but the bat has just never gotten there. I’m honestly not sure what they’re going to do with him to start this season given the glut of catchers in the top two levels.
The Red Sox seem to me to have the best catching situation at the major-league level in the division. I actually think that Gary Sánchez has become a bit underrated with his flaws outshining his plusses, and if both he and Vázquez hit their ceilings I’d take Sánchez. That said, Vázquez is a steadier presence. I do think Toronto’s group of young catchers in Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk could be interesting, but this year it’s still Vázquez. That group, plus Adley Rutschman in Baltimore, could change the dynamic as soon as 2022, though.