BOSTON — Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are on the other side of the Boston Red Sox’ catching bridge, which currently is occupied by A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross. It might not be long before the Red Sox cross that bridge and call upon the two minor league catchers, making the tandem’s offseason development extremely important.
Vazquez and Swihart were among 10 minor leaguers who participated in this year’s Red Sox Rookie Program, which is geared toward easing the major league transition for the club’s emerging prospects. The camp, which concluded at Harvard University on Friday, gave each participating player an opportunity to work out and rub elbows with the Red Sox’ major league staff, although it perhaps was most beneficial to Vazquez and Swihart, who must acquire and retain so much information during their development as minor league catchers.
“I think this camp in particular — and others that we’ve done in the past — are really important for everybody, but in particular catchers, just to get as much exposure as possible to the major league staff [and] the way of thinking things,” Red Sox Director of Player Development Ben Crockett said Friday. “The information that goes into the advanced reports is something that they just need to get more familiar with.”
Vazquez and Swihart are joined by Ryan Lavarnway and Dan Butler in the Red Sox’ logjam of young catchers. All four backstops figure to open the 2014 season in the minors — with Pierzynski and Ross penciled in as the Red Sox’ two major league catchers — creating an interesting dilemma in which the organization must figure out a way to get each catching prospect the at-bats and defensive repetitions necessary to continue their development.
Crockett said Friday that there aren’t any specific organizational guidelines regarding how much playing time a catcher must garner in the minors before transitioning to the majors. But given the abundance of knowledge — game-calling, managing pitchers, hitter tendencies, etc. — that catching requires, hands-on experience is an integral part of grooming a future major league backstop.
“It’s hard to put a hard number on it with regard to repetition,” Crockett said, “but certainly on the defensive side of things it’s one of the more challenging transitions to the major leagues, just in terms of the amount of information that goes into preparation for the major league side.”
Lavarnway, 26, already has major league experience on his resume, and Butler, 27, has five seasons of minor league experience under his belt. Vazquez and Swihart are widely considered the future of the Red Sox’ catching position, though, and it’s because of the immense potential that each already has displayed down on the farm.
Vazquez, ranked the best defensive catcher in the Red Sox farm system by Baseball America each of the last three years, threw out 46.5 percent of would-be base stealers with Double-A Portland in 2013. The 23-year-old also made strides offensively last season, posting career-highs in batting average (.287) and on-base percentage (.375) in 97 games.
Swihart, drafted 26th overall in 2011, spent all of 2013 with High-A Salem, where he hit .298 in 103 games. The 21-year-old was named the Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year after gunning down a Carolina League-high 41.5 percent of attempted base stealers.
“Blake has continued to make a lot of progress on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively. We kind of recognize that with the Defensive Player of the Year,” Crockett said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, someone that has gotten a lot better behind the plate. He’s got plenty of arm strength and that athleticism is really starting to translate. He took more leadership this year. The leadership, the game-planning, the relationship with pitchers are things that he continued to prioritize as someone that’s kind of new to the position.”
While Swihart might be a year or two away from creeping into the major league discussion, Vazquez is inching his way toward big league consideration. Lavarnway and Butler also are options if something happens to either Pierzynski or Ross this season, but Vazquez represents an intriguing alternative, mostly because of his incredible arm.
“It’s a treat,” fellow Red Sox farmhand Matt Barnes said of pitching to Vazquez. “Any time [I’ve] got a guy behind the plate who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the last two years, that I have a great relationship with, he knows how I want to go about the game, my pitches, the way I like to attack hitters.
“But more importantly, his defense is absolutely outstanding. Any time [I’ve] got a guy behind the plate who takes the burden off of me trying to hold runners, it really makes my job a lot easier. I get to focus on the hitter a lot more, knowing that I have him behind the plate that there’s very few people in baseball that can steal on him.”
Both Pierzynski and Ross are set to become free agents next offseason. The Red Sox were reluctant to give any catcher, including Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a multi-year contract in free agency this winter, largely because of the internal options already in place. In other words, 2015 could be Vazquez’s time to shine, with one of the other three minor league catchers also transitioning into a major league role.
“Christian’s definitely very close [to major league ready],” Crockett said. “I think we’re very lucky to be in a position where we’ve got three guys and potentially four with Blake at the upper levels that could help us at the major league level. Obviously, Lavarnway was there last year and has the most experience of that group, and I think with two other guys that saw time at Triple-A last year, with Vazquez and Butler, I think there wouldn’t be a ton of hesitation to expose any of those guys if the timing was right and the situation was right.”
The “right” time and situation could be even closer than we think.