Red Sox Blake Swihart: Best Trade Chip?

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As Red Sox Nation knows very well, the Boston Red Sox will be entering the offseason meeting in a very interesting situation. After months of hearing that the entire team needs an overhaul, the new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski will have much to think about after the team went 32-26 in their last 58 games of the season. Many of the players changed perceptions of their careers for the better in that span, making it more difficult for Dombrowski to decide who stays and who goes.

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One of those names is Blake Swihart, the prospect-turned-starting catcher. The Boston Globe‘s Peter Abraham recently wrote about each of the Red Sox players, contemplating in print which direction they each would possibly go. In his published notes, Abraham states how he believes that Swihart is, maybe, the biggest trading chip that the Red Sox have.

According to Abraham, “if the Red Sox believe Christian Vazquez will be healthy and ready to go for Opening Day [in 2016], trading Swihart becomes an option. A young, talented, and cost-controlled catcher could be part of a package that brings back a top-tier starter. But dealing Swihart would be difficult because of his vast potential. They’d have to be awfully sure.”

Abraham takes into account that assets like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval would be wonderful to trade but likely will never happen. He also refers to the young talent of breakout stars like Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts being impossible to trade without significant compensation, and veteran leaders like David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia will never leave unless they want to retire. With all of those factors in mind, Swihart would be a solid investment for another team to want to trade for, making him a great bargaining chip.

However, even Abraham himself allows for doubt on that front.

Instead of just doubt, how about we put some cold water on any of those trade embers before a fire of rumors spread? The Red Sox have four catchers on their 40-man roster: Swihart, Vazquez, Ryan Hanigan, and Sandy Leon. When you examine how they compare more closely, unless the Red Sox bring in another big name to play the position, Swihart should be in a Red Sox jersey for a long time.

Both Leon and Swihart are switch-hitters, but not all switch-hitting bats are alike. With Leon not even hitting his 225-pound weight, his .997 fielding percentage this season was not enough to keep him in the big leagues for more than 37 appearances as a catcher.

Hanigan was brought in especially to be a backup catcher, not a starter, although there was room for advancement if Swihart couldn’t handle the duties. In terms of offense, Hanigan did well to get on base, but his slash line of .247/.337/.328 was not threatening any opposing pitcher. Being 35 years old also doesn’t exactly scream a long-term solution to the catcher’s role, either. He did catch 12 base stealers, but he also allowed 24 stolen bases. Hanigan did his job as a solid backup catcher: defensively competent and not inept at the plate.

As good as that is, the Red Sox can’t expect Hanigan to take over the reins full-time, especially with Vazquez returning.

Mar 9, 2015; Jupiter, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez (7) runs back into the dugout during a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The real competition still remains between Swihart and Vazquez, as it was last spring. In 2014, Vazquez’s powerful arm kept the oppositions’ speedsters from trying to steal bases on his watch. He threw out 15 base stealers in 29 attempts. In 2015, Swihart caught 16, one more than Vazquez; however, Swihart also allowed 41 stolen bases. If gunning runners out on the base paths was all it took to be a good catcher, Vazquez would have the edge, handily.

Fortunately for Swihart, it’s not.

Offensively, Swihart’s slash line in 2015 (.274/.319/.392) was more powerful and threatening than Hanigan’s, let alone Vazquez’s .240/.308/.309 in 2014. It’s worth noting that in only 55 games, Vazquez produced 20 RBIs, 11 less than Swihart in 84 games. By the rate of production, Vazquez would have tied Swihart for RBIs if given the same amount of appearances. However, being a switch-hitter with a better batting average, a better on-base percentage, better slugging power, and being two years younger, Swihart’s potential seems to reach farther than Vazquez, who is also coming back from major surgery to his throwing arm.

That’s not even counting the ‘it’ factor with the pitching staff. While Vazquez had veterans like Jon Lester and John Lackey steadying a wobbly keel for 653 earned runs allowed, Swihart had to handle the debacle that was Rick Porcello, the roller coaster that was Joe Kelly, the Jekyll-and-Hyde that was Wade Miley, and rookies Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens for a combined 694 earned runs. It was more runs, but it could have been much worse. For a rookie catcher to handle his crew of misfits almost as well as the year before, with more successful veterans, it speaks volumes to the job that Swihart did.

Even if Vazquez is 100% next spring, the starter’s job should not be thought of as his, automatically. Swihart’s potential in 2014 was still a mystery without a season in the big leagues under his belt. Now, Boston knows what Swihart is capable of if given the chance, with room still to grow. In two years, where will Swihart be in terms of his level of play, compared to where Vazquez is currently? As their play has been pretty evenly matched, it would seem that Swihart would have the edge going into this next spring.

That is, unless Dombrowski feels that Swihart’s trade value could never be higher. Maybe the Red Sox could live without as much potential at the catcher position if Swihart helped bring a big-named pitcher or other struggling position. If Dombrowski keeps both young catchers, however, expect Swihart to be the starter come April.

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