Red Sox Catchers Need To Catch A Break
Rumors persist that the Boston Red Sox will not have three catchers to start the 2016 season. Blake Swihart, Ryan Hanigan, & Christian Vazquez are on notice.
Christopher Smith of MassLive.com recently reported on the catching issue with the Red Sox, stating that “Vazquez will begin the year at Triple-A Pawtucket,” after recovering from Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm which kept him out all of last season. Manager John Farrell made this announcement yesterday to reporters, while also noting how well starting pitcher Joe Kelly has performed with Hanigan: “You’d prioritize the pitcher-catcher relationship. […] We’re not turning a blind eye to all the factors involved, but I think we have to take care of ourselves before we’d look to match up from an offensive side.”
Smith also notes that, while Farrell also said that keeping all three catchers with the Red Sox has “not been ruled out,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski did state otherwise during the winter meetings: “I would be surprised if we keep three catchers […] Normally as a manager, you only want two. I know that there’s some versatility you could have with Swihart, but at this point I would think that we’d probably have two catchers on our club.”
As far as Farrell’s remarks about Hanigan go, the catcher’s own words were almost echoed from last February when he said, “From the conversations I’ve had [with the Red Sox] and where we’re at with things, I’m pretty confident in my situation. […] They want me to play, man.”
Ahh, the agony of choice!
While Smith believes that Hanigan would be the catcher likely to be traded, if there even was a trade, there are a number of factors to suggest differently.
Hanigan is 35 years old, who is getting paid $3.5 million for this season, he is guaranteed $3.7 million next season, and he has a $3.75 million team option for 2017. A team may want to trade for him, but how many general managers would want to give up valuable assets for an aging player who is going to cost the team more money than any prospect that they would give in return? If they were to give up a veteran, it would only be another aging one who wouldn’t be as important at other positions for the Red Sox as Hanigan is as a catcher.
Losing Hanigan also jeopardizes Kelly’s success as well. Kelly went 10-6 with 110 strikeouts in 134.1 innings last season; however, eight of those wins all came in the bottom half of the year, after Kelly finally figured out his game. Much of that support was based on Hanigan’s handling of the 27-year-old starter. Hanigan caught 13 of Kelly’s starts while they kept his opposing batting average to .262. In contrast, Swihart caught 11 of Kelly’s starts and allowed an opposing batting average of .276.
Hanigan’s ‘magic’ with Kelly could be compared to Toronto Blue Jays combination of pitcher Marco Estrada and catcher Dioner Navarro in 2015. While Estrada floundered with the Milwaukee Brewers, he was paired up with Navarro in Toronto and publicly gave credit to the catcher for helping his game. Estrada had a .181 opposing batting average in 20 games caught by Navarro, while it ballooned to .244 in 14 games when four-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin was behind the plate. Navarro’s time with Estrada saw the pitcher post a 2.63 ERA, yet Estrada had a 4.11 ERA with Martin.
Sometimes, chemistry outplays talent.
With this information in mind, it is hard to say that Hanigan would be the obvious choice to be traded, once Vazquez has completely recovered from the surgery.
If anything, Vazquez, being 25 years old and being the defensive talent that he is, would make a great trade target for another team. He has youth and a knack for throwing out base runners. Vazquez caught 15 potential base stealers out of 29 attempts, good enough for catching 52% of them for Boston in 2014. By contrast, Swihart only threw out 28%, catching 16 but allowing 41 bases to be stolen.
Where Swihart is still developing his own eye for throwing out base runners, he is superior to Vazquez in hitting. Swihart hit .274 with five home runs and 31 RBIs in 84 games in 2015; Vazquez hit .240 with a homer and 20 RBIs in 55 games against MLB pitching in 2014. The righty bat of Vazquez posted a .309 slugging percentage while the switch-hitting Swihart had a .392 slugging percentage, demonstrating that Swihart has more power even though he is two years younger than Vazquez.
The potential with the bat, his versatility, and his more recent experience with the Red Sox starting rotation makes Swihart a step ahead of Vazquez, who may or may not come back 100% healthy. Swihart’s time with the rotation was spent while the pitchers were progressing, while Vazquez’s time in 2014 was spend on the downward turn for the mound meddlers. Most of that rotation isn’t even a part of the Red Sox organization anymore.
Swihart has earned the opportunity to be the starting catcher. Hanigan has earned playing time, even if it is to be Kelly’s handler through all of his starts. Vazquez’s worth might be the best it has ever been on the trade market, with little opportunities in the immediate future to show it to be even greater. If a trade was to happen, the Red Sox may want to strike the metal while it’s still hot with Vazquez in the next few weeks. Otherwise, they should think for the long term and keep two good, young catchers, while waiting for Hanigan’s veteran presence to pass its expiration date.
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Sure, Vazquez is good enough to be a starter on a major league team, but when has a team put a player’s desire at the top of the priority list?