Red Sox: New big bats spell doom for Blake Swihart in 2017

May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Blake Swihart (23) triples during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Blake Swihart (23) triples during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Boston Red Sox sign a new bat to replace the retired David Ortiz, there won’t be a place for Blake Swihart to crack the starting roster. Will trade talks follow?

Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal reports, “That Swihart was so unceremoniously relieved of his duties in April and shifted to left field shortly thereafter suggests that director of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski does not think highly of his future behind the plate.” Instead, a log jam, consisting of Sandy Leon, Ryan Hanigan, and Christian Vazquez, stands in front of the 24-year-old former prospect.

With Andrew Benintendi seeming to be the solution to the left field situation, what is Swihart going to do in 2017?

MacPherson continued: “A Swihart that’s out of favor in Boston still would have had tremendous trade value if not for his injury, however, and so it probably behooves Dombrowski and the Red Sox to make Swihart their regular catcher in Pawtucket.” The positive with the move to Triple-A would be that “not only would that give the relatively raw Swihart a chance to keep improving, it would demonstrate to other teams that he’s healthy enough to handle the position.”

Before July, when Swihart developed his left ankle sprain, he hit .258 with five RBIs in 62 at-bats. The season before, one in which he also had a sprained left foot injury, Swihart hit a slash line of .274/.319/.392 with five home runs and 31 RBIs in 84 games.

Whether the coincidence of his left foot and ankle is more than a fluke or a troubling sign early in his career, Swihart’s bat was considered a work in progress with a lot of potential on the horizon. The real issue, at least for now, was his fielding.

After a 2015 season, starting as the Red Sox catcher for 78 games produced the following numbers: three errors, 16 passed balls, and 16 base stealers caught in 57 attempts. That last figure equates to catching base runners out about 28% of the time. To put the math into perspective, Vazquez had a ratio of 52% when he looked to be the sure bet as the Red Sox starting catcher for years to come. Even after playing for 49 games in 2016, after recovering from Tommy John surgery, Vazquez posted a ratio of 35%, still better than Swihart’s healthy throwing arm.

For what it’s worth, the league percentage in throwing out base runners by a catcher was 29% in 2016.

As Jeff Todd of suggests, “That could leave Boston with some tough questions — beginning with a call on Hanigan’s $3.75MM option (which comes with a $800K buyout).” Leon and Vazquez also lack remaining options to be sent to the minors. Todd states, “While Swihart does have one more option year remaining, his most recent usage suggests that the organization isn’t bullish on his ability to stick behind the dish.”

If Swihart isn’t going behind the plate and the Red Sox have an established four solid outfielders, that doesn’t leave much room for Swihart to look like the future in Boston’s organization. Anyone can be taught how to play third base, another troubling area for the Red Sox as of late, but that doesn’t mean that someone like Swihart could do it. Between other prospects and veterans fighting for that position as well, moving Swihart out of the mix for the catcher’s role may have spelled the beginning of the end to his time in a Red Sox uniform.

The saving grace for Swihart was always his bat. The hope was that he would light up pitchers enough to make the Red Sox give him time to improve his defense. If the Red Sox want an excuse to keep him, that would be the argument to use. None of the other catchers in Boston could hit very well, with the exception of Leon. That is, until September hit and Leon’s roaring bat looked more like a kitty in a neighbor’s window, trying to scratch you from behind a white curtain.

However, by bringing another big bat into the lineup through free agency, the Red Sox may feel that they have enough offense to compensate for a starting catcher with great defense and a suspect bat. That solution creates the ultimate problem for Swihart. He won’t be the designated hitter, he won’t play the outfield, he likely won’t be shifted to third base, and he’s looked to be done being a catcher in Boston. And, unless he has an incredible curve ball and slider that we all are not aware of, it’s not like Swihart’s going to take the mound any time soon.

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A trade seems inevitable for Swihart and the Red Sox. Why leave an asset sitting on the bench or in Triple-A when it looks like there isn’t a future spot available? There are other catchers who can handle and teach the prospects in the minors; Swihart is good enough to get his feet wet in the majors, even if that means to do it with another team. Boston should try to use Swihart as a trading chip when his value isn’t too diminished. If he picks up another injury to the lower left region of his body or his bat starts to fade, the team might lose its opportunity for Swihart to contribute one last time.