Red Sox need Blake Swihart back

Aug 30, 2015; New York City, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) singles in the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. The Mets defeated the Red Sox 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 30, 2015; New York City, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) singles in the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. The Mets defeated the Red Sox 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

Blake Swihart is progressing slowly from a severe ankle sprain, but the Boston Red Sox still hold out hope for his return this season.

Will the Boston Red Sox get Blake Swihart back in the lineup this season? The notion seemed far more certain in the early stages of his recovery from a severe left ankle sprain suffered when he ran into the unforgiving left field wall chasing a fly ball on June 4.

Swihart had hoped to avoid surgery so that he could play again this season, but he hasn’t progressed as well as the team expected.

The Red Sox will now send Swihart to get a second opinion from noted foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, reports’s Ian Browne. A decision will be made after that to determine the next course of action, but any setback in Swihart’s recovery could potentially end his season.

"“As he’s ramped up activity, it’s kind of talking back to him,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “We’ll see what the second opinion has to offer.”"

Fingers are crossed throughout the organization that it’s good news, as the Red Sox could certainly use Swihart back for the stretch run.

It’s been a frustrating season for the 24-year old former top prospect. He started the year as the Opening Day catcher for the Red Sox, only for his inconsistency at the plate and behind it to earn him a trip back to Triple-A Pawtucket.

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In the month or so that he spent back in the minors it was decided that his future would be best served transitioning to left field. He certainly has the athleticism to play in the outfield and the Red Sox seem to have soured on his capabilities as a catcher. When he returned to the big leagues on May 20 it was with the intention of making him the primary left fielder, but that plan lasted all of about two weeks. Swihart had made a smooth transition to left and was just starting to heat up at the plate before injury put him on the shelf.

Since then the Red Sox have called up stud prospect Andrew Benintendi, who has already been anointed the left fielder of the present and future. That leaves Swihart’s future a bit murky, but that doesn’t meant the Red Sox can’t use him.

Benintendi should get significant playing time, but he’s still young and unproven. The left-handed hitter’s reverse-splits show he has performed best against lefty pitchers, but the switch-hitting Swihart would be a more than adequate platoon partner if that trend doesn’t continue against major league pitching. At least until lefty masher Chris Young returns.

Bryce Brentz has been decent enough and Brock Holt can fill in when he isn’t needed elsewhere on the field, but Swihart has more offensive upside than either of them.  Replacing Brentz with Swihart and keeping Holt in the super-utility role he thrives in gives the Red Sox a stronger bench.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of getting Swihart back is his ability to serve as emergency catcher depth. Sandy Leon has earned the starting catcher gig, at least for the rest of this season, while the Red Sox still need Ryan Hanigan because he’s their best option to corral the knuckleball when Steven Wright takes the mound. Swihart wouldn’t replace Hanigan as the backup catcher, but it would be nice to have some added insurance for the injury prone veteran.

Hanigan still has value for his game-calling and experience behind the dish, but he’s having a miserable season offensively. The 35-year old is batting a mere .158 through 95 at-bats this season and his .437 OPS is lower than any Red Sox hitter that has received double-digit plate appearances this season. He remains serviceable defensively, but has no business batting late in a close game.

The problem is that Farrell has often been reluctant to pinch-hit for Hanigan because it would leave him without a backup catcher. If Leon were to get hurt after replacing Hanigan at the catcher position, who does Farrell turn to? It puts the manager in the unenviable position of deciding between playing with fire by leaving the team vulnerable without a backup plan for arguably the most important defensive position or letting Hanigan hit for himself in a key spot. Either decision potentially spells disaster.

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Farrell found himself in such a position Thursday night in Seattle. This time he did decided to swap Hanigan for Leon and it paid off. Leon went without a hit, but when he came up again in the 11th inning he put down a bunt that got Travis Shaw into scoring position for the game-winning run one batter later.

You can argue the merits of asking a guy hitting .365 to bunt, while the strategy might not have even worked at all if Holt’s single up the middle hadn’t ricocheted off the shortstop’s glove. If that ball goes through cleanly then the center fielder gets to it in time to hold Shaw at third base. Maybe he scores anyway on the fly ball to right that Mookie Betts hit for the second out of the inning, maybe not. Regardless, it worked, and the point is that no matter what strategy Farrell wanted to utilize in that spot, you want Leon to have the bat in his hands over Hanigan.

If the Red Sox had another option to use at catcher then Farrell would have the peace of mind to replace Hanigan more often. Swihart solves that problem. Even if becoming a full-time catcher again isn’t in his future, he’s still capable of putting the gear back on in a pinch. Or if Leon needs a full day off to rest, Swihart can be the backup catcher that can pinch-hit for Hanigan if needed late in a game.

The Red Sox don’t want to waste a bench spot on a third catcher, so calling up Christian Vazquez to fill this role isn’t a viable plan until rosters expand in September. However, a backup left fielder with the versatility to play catcher if needed? They can find room on the bench for that guy.

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Hopefully this second opinion brings good news so that Swihart can get back on the field at some point this month. The Red Sox aren’t giving up on him yet, so we shouldn’t give up on the idea that he can still be of value this season.