Red Sox: Shortened season could cost Christian Vazquez in option year

Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez might fall short for his bonus.

The Boston Red Sox have catcher Christian Vazquez locked up for at least one more season on a bargain deal and they might get him for an extra year at a cheaper price than expected.

Vazquez signed a team-friendly 3-year, $13.3 million deal in the spring of 2018 that bought out his remaining arbitration years plus the first year he would have been eligible for free agency. The Red Sox had already signed Vazquez for $1.425 million for the 2018 season, his first year of arbitration, so the extension wouldn’t kick in until the following year.

An injury-plagued 2018 campaign had many second-guessing the early extension, which would double his salary to $2.85 million in the first year of the new deal. That would prove to be a tremendous bargain when a breakout season launched Vazquez to the verge of the elite tier at his position.

His strong play has carried over to this year, making him well worth his $4.2 million salary, which has been prorated for this shortened season. Boston will have no qualms about the raise to $6.25 million in the final guaranteed year of the extension.

After that is where it gets tricky. The Red Sox hold a team option for Vazquez for the 2022 season worth $7 million. It comes with a $250,000 buyout which the team is unlikely to utilize barring a catastrophic injury in the meantime.

However, there’s also a clause in the contract that raises that team option to $8 million if Vazquez reaches at least 502 plate appearances in both 2020 and 2021. Vazquez easily reached the mark last year with 521 plate appearances but that’s irrelevant in terms of this bonus and it won’t matter how much playing time he receives next year if he doesn’t hit the mark this season.

Obviously, Vazquez has no chance at reaching 502 plate appearances in this 60-game season. The threshold will be prorated based on the number of games on the schedule, as has been done for player salaries. That means that Vazquez will need to reach 186 plate appearances this year.

Vazquez enters the day with 160 plate appearances through the first 49 games, 41 of which he has appeared in. That leaves him needing 26 more plate appearances in the final 11 games.

So far this season, Vazquez is averaging 3.9 plate appearances per game. That’s slightly higher than the 3.7 per game he averaged last year in 138 games, although that rises to 4.0 per game if you exclude his 12 pinch-hit appearances. Vazquez only has one pinch-hit appearance this year so the average isn’t quite a skewed. In other words, 3.9 plate appearances per game is a reasonable estimate to stick with for the rest of this season.

At that rate, Vazquez must play in at least seven full games over the remaining 11 on Boston’s schedule in order to reach 186 plate appearances. Sure, an extra-innings game or high-scoring affair could inflate his expected trips to the plate and shave a game off that target. Likewise, there could be other games where the opposing pitcher dominates, holding Vazquez to only three plate appearances. That’s assuming he isn’t lifted from the game early for a pinch-hitter or runner. This is merely a projection based on the data we have available.

Catchers tend to need more days off than other position players due to the physical demands behind the plate. Vazquez is one of only four major league catchers to receive 502+ plate appearances last year. It was hardly a foregone conclusion that Vazquez would trigger this bonus based on plate appearances anyway. Meeting the requirement in a shortened season where every absence is magnified makes it even more difficult.

Vazquez has started at catcher in 36 games this season, or 73 percent of the team’s games. If he sustains that rate for the remainder of the season then he should get eight more starts at catcher, which should be enough to get him to 186 plate appearances.

It’s cutting it close though. Even a minor injury that knocks him out of the lineup for a few days could hinder his chances of meeting that goal. It’s possible that the Red Sox want to give more playing time to Kevin Plawecki down the stretch of this lost season to see if his surprisingly hot bat is for real. Perhaps they want to call up a young catching prospect to get a look at them.

Vazquez could serve as the DH for a few games to allow other catchers to get playing time without forcing him to sacrifice his plate appearances. He has started four games as the DH this year.

With the Red Sox out of contention, there is less incentive for the manager to lean on his veterans. That might make it harder for Vazquez to accumulate enough appearances to trigger the bonus in his option year.

Ron Roenicke should be mindful of this when he fills out his lineup card for the remaining games. Boston should be ensuring that Vazquez gets enough playing time to be on pace for his bonus, as long as he’s healthy. $1 million means more to Vazquez then it does to the team. Getting their veteran catcher more playing time might not be the priority but it’s a bad look for the club if they limit him enough to take that option-year bonus out of play.