Spring training presents an opportunity for certain players to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. One of the more intriguing position battles in the Boston Red Sox camp is the one taking place behind the plate.
Reese McGuire and Connor Wong are currently the only catchers on the Red Sox 40-man roster but non-roster invitee Jorge Alfaro is making a case to be included in the mix. If the Red Sox plan on keeping Alfaro as an option in their stable of catchers, they'll need to act quickly to open a roster spot for him.
Red Sox faced with an important roster choice early on with Jorge Alfaro
According to MassLive's Chris Cotillo, Alfaro's minor league deal with the Red Sox includes an "upward mobility" clause, which would allow him to seek a major league opportunity elsewhere. If another team has interest in adding Alfaro to their roster, Boston would need to add him to their 40-man roster by March 25 or else allow him to go to another club.
Complicating matters is that the veteran catcher has over five years of major league service time, which means he can refuse an assignment to the minor leagues. If the Red Sox add him to their 40-man roster, they will need to either keep Alfaro in the big leagues or risk designating him for assignment if he's unwilling to accept the demotion to the minors.
The catcher position was once a source of stability for the Red Sox with Christian Vazquez serving as the primary battery mate for their pitching staff over the last several years. Now they enter the season with uncertainty at the position. McGuire thrived following the midseason trade that sent him to Boston, hitting .337 with a .877 OPS in 36 games. It was a small sample that exceeded his production from past seasons at the major league level though.
McGuire's 89 games split between Chicago and Boston last season were a career high. It's fair to question if he can hold up as the primary catcher for a full season since the 28-year-old has never done it before. Wong is even more unproven with only 33 career games under his belt. He struggled in his first meaningful taste of the big leagues last year, hitting .188 with a .585 OPS in 56 plate appearances, and he remains a work in progress defensively.
The lack of proven depth behind the plate makes adding Alfaro more appealing. McGuire would likely remain the primary catcher but Alfaro's right-handed bat would provide a perfect complement, especially since Boston's lineup is heavy on left-handed hitters with McGuire in the lineup.
McGuire hit very well with the Red Sox last season but Alfaro has a solid bat for the position with a career .256/.305/.396 slash line. Alfaro has issues with plate discipline, carrying a 34.1 K% and 4.2 BB% for his career, per Baseball Savant. He brings more power to the table than either of Boston's other catchers though, swatting a career-high 18 home runs in 130 games in 2019. Alfaro's 115.2 Max Exit Velocity placed him in the 97th percentile last season. He owns a 43.8 Hard Hit% for his career, a rate topped by only six qualified catchers last season.
Alfaro doesn't come with a strong defensive reputation, ranking in the 37th percentile in pitch framing last season. His 20 passed balls allowed over the last two seasons were the most in the National League. He has a strong throwing arm though, which put him in the 96th percentile in pop time to second base.
Alfaro is off to a strong start in his two appearances this spring, going 3-for-6 with a double. If he keeps swinging a hot stick in camp, Alfaro will force the Red Sox into a difficult decision.
It's possible that the Red Sox could carry three catchers entering the season. Alfaro has some experience at first base and his bat plays well enough to serve as an occasional designated hitter, while Wong also has some defensive versatility to fill in at multiple positions. Keeping all three of them will be a challenge though considering Boston's desire to maintain middle infield depth during Trevor Story's lengthy absence and the collection of corner outfielders vying for a roster spot.
Wong could be optioned to Triple-A, where he'd see more consistent playing time to allow him to further develop. He's currently dealing with a hamstring injury that could jeopardize his status for Opening Day. If Wong isn't ready to go in time, that could cement Alfaro's spot before the upward mobility clause kicks in. The Red Sox would still need to open a spot on the 40-man roster for him though. Boston would need to feel confident that Alfaro can be an asset over the course of the full season to warrant giving someone else's roster spot away.
The unique clause in Alfaro's contract has put the Red Sox on the clock to make a decision. With the uncertainty lingering over the catcher position, Boston will be hard-pressed to let him slip away if he performs well in camp. It's easy to see Alfaro emerging as a fan-favorite if he sticks around, and not only because he looks like he could serve as Aquaman's stunt double. His bat has impressive pop for the position and Alfaro can provide some veteran savvy to an inexperienced group of Red Sox catchers.