Red Sox faced with a tough choice behind the plate

Feb 26, 2017; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) singles during the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2017; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart (23) singles during the fifth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox entered Spring Training with three viable options behind the plate, but only one has played their way to the forefront of the conversation.

The situation behind the plate for the Red Sox is anything but clear. Between Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, and Blake Swihart they have three players competing for just two spots on the roster. The question that this all boils down to is who do they trust the most behind the plate?

The one thing that has been clear with the Red Sox and their hunt for an everyday catcher is the premium they put on defense. It’s why Blake Swihart moved to the outfield and why Christian Vazquez will always have a shot at the roster, so long as he can pick up a bat.

Sandy Leon, the elder statesman of the group at 28, is the incumbent. He’s coming off of a career year, in which he batted .310/.369/.476 and contributed 2.6 WAR. However, his streaky nature and inconsistent track record have raised questions about how legitimate his 2016 numbers really were.

He had a monstrous line in June and July, batting .391 with a 1.054 OPS, three home runs, and 16 runs batted in. Except he hit .263 with a .727 OPS in his remaining 48 games, compounded by a .218/.287/.256 slash line (0 home runs, 7 RBI) in his final 24.

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He played 75 games between 2012 and 2015 (78 games in 2016), batting an anemic .187/.258/.225. Never a good sign when a player’s slugging percentage is below their OBP.

His career has had two separate story lines, but which Sandy Leon will show up in 2017 is anyone’s guess.

Defensively, he’s actually been above average to the surprise of some. His fielding percentage (.996%) is higher than league average (.994%) and he’s thrown out 43% of runners against for his career. If he’s the .263, .727 OPS hitter we saw in his second-half, you take that every single time with the defense he provides. The only problem is that he’s never been that type of hitter before.

In Christian Vazquez’s case, the last two seasons have been lost to injury and poor performance. After missing the entirety of the 2015 season, he struggled to hold onto the starting job in Boston last year, batting just .226 over 51 games before getting optioned to Pawtucket. Though, he’s still regarded as one of the premier defensive backstops in baseball and has put that ability on display this spring.

Every scout in baseball agrees that he’s one of the best defensive catchers around and the numbers are there to back it up. Thanks to Baseball Prospectus, we now have a way to quantify defensive the value a catcher provides with pitch framing. Last year, Vazquez saved seven defensive runs. In 2014, he saved about double in the same playing time.

To put those figures into perspective, they make him one of the top-10 catchers in major league baseball. Even more impressive is that he ranks so highly in a counting stat, despite playing 57 and 55 games in the respective seasons.

He’s undeniably an elite catcher, the rest of his defensive metrics back that up as well, but the biggest impediment on his path to a starting position has been his bat. Fortunately, his defense makes up a lot of ground compared to others. If he can improve upon his career 64 OPS+, even just 20 points, he’ll instantly become a two-win player over the course of a season. He posted 1.1 WAR despite his 73 OPS+ in 2014, and that was in just 55 games.

As for Blake Swihart, he’s entering spring as the odd-man out. The Red Sox moved him to left field last season, where he played just 13 games before injuring his ankle and missing the rest of the season. He’s now committed to catching full-time and won’t be a consideration in the outfield. Swihart is the most athletic catcher in the group, maybe even all of baseball.

I’ve talked a lot about defense, but he’s is the type of player that could flip the script. If he delivers on his potential, we’re looking at a plus-bat for a catcher, with all around athleticism and average power at a minimum. Given the fact that catcher is the worst offensive position in baseball, it’ll be hard to ignore a player with that ability.

Unfortunately for him, he fell outside the team’s inner circle last season. The move to left field showed that the Red Sox didn’t trust him defensively. It didn’t make much sense since his offensive value is intrinsically tied to his comparables as a catcher, but they did it nonetheless. The experiment fizzled out and now, months later, Swihart is back behind the plate.

If there’s one player that has created separation from the pack this spring, it’s been him. He’s 8-20 (.350) with a .409 OBP and .859 OPS. By comparison, Vazquez and Leon are batting .176 and .091 respectively. There’s still a lot of time left in Spring Training, but Blake Swihart is making an early claim for a spot on the roster this season. But he’s the only one with minor league options remaining, meaning he’ll almost certainly start the year in AAA.

This is the predicament the Red Sox are in. Three guys, all of whom were expected to compete for the starting position with just two spots on the roster. Except, only one has come out and made a claim for the job.

The Red Sox certainly won’t move one of Vazquez or Leon to make space and they definitely can’t risk putting either through waivers. So what do they do with Swihart, who looks primed to break out offensively in 2017?

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Most likely stash him in AAA and let him work on his defensive skills. We’ll just have to wait and see how long the Red Sox can hold him back, though.