The former top prospect has no viable path to a meaningful role with the Boston Red Sox. Blake Swihart has potential, but he’s a poorly used roster spot.
The first time I followed the MLB draft religiously was in 2011. From a Boston Red Sox fan’s perspective, one could not have asked for a better draft crop. Boston’s haul included future big leaguers Matt Barnes, Travis Shaw, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. But of all the new draftees, none intrigued me as much as a high school backstop out of New Mexico named Blake Swihart.
Swihart was considered a top-15 talent by many in the industry, but his large signing bonus demands caused him to slip to the Red Sox at the 26th overall pick.
I was ecstatic when Swihart’s name was called. The young catcher was raw defensively but possessed a cannon for an arm and the athleticism needed to succeed behind the plate. However, defense wasn’t his calling card. Swihart could hit. He didn’t just project to hit well as a catcher; scouts believed Swihart could develop into an above-average from both sides of the plate.
I had all the naivete one would expect of a 14-year-old watching a highly anticipated prospect climb through the system. The bust rate of high school players didn’t enter my mind; I closed my eyes and saw a young Jorge Posada ready to march into Fenway Park. But it was not meant to be.
Swihart would rise through the minor leagues with quite a bit of success. After a rough first full season in pro-ball in 2012, Swihart would perform well enough over the next two years to find himself atop almost every Red Sox prospect list by September 2014.
Swihart would achieve some success in his first taste of the big leagues in 2015, including a second-half slash line of .303/.353/.452 in 44 games.
He was expected to split time with Christian Vazquez to start the 2016 season, but the Red Sox brass decided to test Swihart’s athleticism in the outfield. The experiment proved costly when Swihart injured his ankle while crashing into a wall on June 4th, 2016. He would return to action later in the season, but he was never the same player.
In the time that has elapsed since his injury, Swihart has bounced between Boston and Pawtucket without posting an OPS above .655 in any given stint. Luckily, the Red Sox did not put all their eggs in one basket. While Swihart floundered the other young Red Sox catcher thrived.
During this tumultuous period for Swihart, Vazquez cemented his job as the everyday catcher. In 99 games last season, Vazquez hit .290/.330/.404 while playing stellar defense and accumulating 1.6 fWAR. Earlier this week, the Red Sox rewarded this performance with a three-year extension worth a guaranteed $13.55 million. While this is not a massive dollar commitment, it signals that Vazquez is the man the Sox want behind the plate in the immediate future. So what does that mean for Swihart?
That’s kind of a tough question to answer. On one hand, Swihart is still just 26-years-old and he has torn it up this spring. While he has struggled behind the plate defensively, Swihart has an offensive ceiling that could play almost anywhere.
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On the other hand, Swihart doesn’t really have an obvious spot on the Red Sox and spring stats are meaningless. Sandy Leon is almost certainly the second string catcher and he’s a safer bet than Swihart is at this point. The Red Sox have a fairly crowded outfield as well so it’s hard to imagine a second experiment there. Red Sox manager Alex Cora mentioned Swihart could potentially see time at second base; however, with Nunez on board that seems unlikely.
So the Red Sox can either keep Swihart as a third catcher or put him on the trading block.
Trading Swihart at this point in time doesn’t make a ton of sense. Even with a hot spring, Swihart’s trade value is hovering near an all-time low. It seems far-fetched to expect the 26-year-old to achieve the promise he once flashed, but he could very well be a useful player, especially considering how low the offensive bar is for catchers. It would sting to see a homegrown player carve out a nice career somewhere else while only receiving a PTBNL or a return of that ilk.
So, for now, it seems likely that the Red Sox will carry Swihart and try to rebuild some of his trade value. If Swihart builds enough value to bring back a useful piece, the Red Sox should capitalize without hesitation. However, even if he doesn’t accrue much value, the Red Sox would be wise to cut ties by mid-season. Maybe he will develop into a starting level catcher, but with Vazquez in town Swihart will never get that opportunity in Boston. Swihart has no more options, and the Red Sox don’t have room on their roster for a third catcher without weakening the rest of their depth.
For now, the Red Sox are okay on roster space. Dustin Pedroia is set to open the season on the DL so, assuming the Red Sox carry a seven-man bullpen and the Sox prefer Swihart to Holt, there’s a spot for a third catcher. However, when Pedroia returns Swihart’s presence will leave the bullpen with one less hand on deck despite the fact that a third catcher adds little to no value on a day-to-day basis.
The Red Sox can afford to string Swihart along to build his trade value for now, but sooner or later something has got to give. Until Pedroia comes back there’s little reason to dump Swihart; however, unless he’s performed well enough to claim the second string job from Leon or another roster spot opens up, Pedroia’s return should trigger Blake Swihart’s departure.