Red Sox botched the development of catcher Blake Swihart

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Blake Swihart
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Blake Swihart /

The baffling decision to designate Blake Swihart for assignment highlights the failure of the Boston Red Sox to develop a once-promising prospect.

The news that the Blake Swihart had been designated by assignment by the Boston Red Sox caught many of us by surprise. The decision is a drastic overreaction to a nightmare start to the 2019 season, turning Swihart into an unfortunate scapegoat for the underperforming pitching staff. Maybe we shouldn’t be all that shocked by this. His unexpected release follows a pattern of the Red Sox mishandling Swihart’s entire career.

When Swihart made his major league debut in 2015 he was widely considered to be the best prospect in the Red Sox organization and the best catching prospect in baseball. His bat profiled as having a sky-high ceiling at a position where offensive production is at a premium. There were lingering questions about his defense since he didn’t become a full-time catcher until 2010, a year before he was drafted in the first round of the MLB amateur draft. Those concerns weren’t enough to sour scouts on his potential. Swihart performed well enough behind the plate throughout his journey through the minor league ranks, showing a strong throwing arm against opposing base stealers, but it was his bat that captivated scouts and the Red Sox front office.

Flashes of that potential were on display during his first big league stint when Swihart hit .274 with a .712 OPS, five home runs, and 31 RBI in 84 games. That was solid production from any catcher, let alone a 23-year old getting his first taste of major league action, while the expectation was that his power would increase as he got older.

A promising rookie season should have foreshadowed a stellar career. Instead, it was the beginning of the end.

Boston’s brass remained unconvinced that Swihart could handle the defensive responsibilities behind the plate and began experimenting with him in the outfield. He appeared in left field for 13 games during the 2016 season until he collided with the wall chasing a fly ball, resulting in a gruesome ankle injury that ended his season.

Swihart struggled to return from that injury and his bat never recaptured the ability he showed during his climb through the minor league system. A bit of rust after missing so much time was to be expected yet he was never able to shake it off.

It didn’t help that the organization couldn’t make up their minds about where to play him, bouncing back and forth between developing him as a catcher and testing him at other positions. Versatility can be a valuable asset but being mediocre at several positions and a master of none isn’t ideal.

Catcher is a very demanding position, both physically and mentally. In addition to keeping the ball in front of you, pitching framing, and throwing out base runners, catchers are responsible for calling the game and building a rapport with the pitching staff. You can’t take a half-assed approach to polishing your skills at the position and expect to be great at it yet that’s essentially what the Red Sox asked Swihart to do. They should have either committed to developing him as a catcher or abandoned it altogether to find a better fit they could lock him into. Toying with him defensively while he was simultaneously trying to find his swing following a lost season stunted his growth, preventing Swihart from emerging into the player he was expected to be.

More from Red Sox News

Moving him away from the catcher position, even temporarily, crushed Swihart’s trade value. He could have been an elite hitter as a catcher but that same production doesn’t profile nearly as well at a corner outfield spot or first base. Remember when the Red Sox could have acquired Cole Hamels when he was at his peak Cy Young-contending form but they refused to part with Swihart? Four years later, the Red Sox can’t find a team willing to give up a fringe prospect for Swihart and they will very likely lose him for nothing.

It’s hard to imagine Swihart clearing waivers so Boston won’t be able to sneak him through to Triple-A, as they did with Sandy Leon before the season started. The former first-round pick has enough upside that another team should take a flier on him but the Red Sox have lost any leverage they may have had in trade talks. They took a once valuable trade chip and turned him into an essentially worthless asset.

Boston made every effort to hang on to Swihart for years despite limited production at the big league level. They wouldn’t trade him when they had the chance and always seemed to value him more than other teams did. When he ran out of minor league options last year, the Red Sox carried three catchers on the 25-man roster rather than risk losing Swihart. The team was hellbent on proving he could thrive at this level.

Until now. 17 games into the season, mere weeks after the team decided to cut Leon from the roster, the Red Sox have decided to shake things up. As if bringing back Leon will magically fix a pitching staff dealing with dips in velocity and an inability to locate pitches. Boston is desperate to find last year’s championship form and it starts with giving ace Chris Sale his security blanket back.

Buried at the bottom of the division standings with trips to New York and Tampa Bay coming up, Boston had to try something. It may work out but that doesn’t make it any less fortunate that Swihart became the victim of this early season slump.

Next. Red Sox Prospect Watch. dark

The Red Sox ruined the career of a once-promising prospect. For his sake, we can only hope that another organization manages to salvage Swihart.