Red Sox Catcher Outlook: Christian Vazquez On Fast Track To Majors

Christian VazquezThe Boston Red Sox’s catching situation is one of the team’s most underrated storylines going into the season.

The Red Sox have replaced last year’s starting catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with A.J. Pierzynski in a move that speaks to the confidence the organization has in its up-and-coming backstops.

Saltalamacchia signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Miami Marlins over the offseason. That’s a reasonable price for a 28-year-old catcher coming off his best season, but the Red Sox were reluctant to hand out a multiyear deal, largely because of the depth in their farm system. The Red Sox instead signed Pierzynski to a one-year, $8.5 million contract, pairing him with veteran backup David Ross, who is entering the second season of a two-year deal.

The veteran tandem of Pierzynski and Ross could serve as a bridge this season while the Red Sox’s minor league catchers continue their development. It makes sense, but it’s also a gamble given the importance of the position.

Let’s dive into the Red Sox’s catching situation for 2014 and beyond.

Depth chart

1. A.J. Pierzynski
2. David Ross

The Red Sox will begin the season with Pierzynski as their starter. Ross, who actually supplanted Saltalamacchia as the Red Sox’s starting catcher during the 2013 World Series run, again will serve as the backup.

There’s little to debate here, but the catching situation could get more interesting as the season goes on. Christian Vazquez, Dan Butler and Ryan Lavarnway should keep their phones close by in case injury strikes.

Points of optimism

-Pierzynski could add some extra power to the Red Sox’s lineup.

Saltalamacchia drilled a career-high 25 home runs in 2012 before seeing his tater total drop to 14 in 2013. Pierzynski hit 27 and 17 homers, respectively, in those two seasons. Most likely, it’ll be a wash. But Pierzynski definitely has some pop.

-Pierzynski’s numbers dipped a bit in Texas last season, but his 2012 production earned him his first career Silver Slugger.

Pierzynski hit .278 with 27 homers, 77 RBIs and a career-high .827 OPS in 2012.

-Pierzynski, a two-time All-Star, is durable. He has caught at least 128 games each of the last 12 seasons.

-While Pierzynski is hated by most opponents, several former teammates have said he’s a player you love to have on your team because of his passion, grit and win-at-all-costs mentality. Those attributes could fit well in the Red Sox’s clubhouse.

Pierzynski actually has a good relationship with David Ortiz, with whom he played in Minnesota from 1998-2002.

“People like to stamp guys from the beginning,” Ortiz told Sports Illustrated in 2012. “One guy says it, and then everyone else follows what that guy says, and then, boom.”

-Ross has emerged as a leader in the Red Sox’s clubhouse.

Manager John Farrell said several times throughout last season that having Ross around was like having an extra coach. That’ll be beneficial both in overcoming the loss of Saltalamacchia this season and developing the young catchers coming up through the system.

-Red Sox pitchers posted a 3.12 ERA in games Ross caught last season, marking the lowest catcher’s ERA among American League backstops with at least 20 games behind the plate. Since 2009, Ross’ 3.29 catcher’s ERA is the lowest in Major League Baseball among backstops with at least 200 games played.

-Ross threw out 34.5 percent of would-be base stealers (10 of 29) last season. That ranked fifth in the American League among catchers with at least 20 games caught, and it marked the highest caught-stealing percentage for a Red Sox catcher since Tony Pena threw out 37.3 percent of would-be base stealers in 1993.

-Vazquez is a tremendous defensive catcher. He has an excellent pop time and a rocket arm that would translate at the major league level right now.

-Defense will always be Vazquez’s calling card, but the 23-year-old made strides offensively in 2013. He hit .289 with five homers, 48 RBIs and a .376 on-base percentage in 96 games with Double-A Portland.

-Vazquez’s work ethic shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. The former ninth-round pick attended the Red Sox Rookie Camp for the second straight year in January. Most players only attend the program once.

-Lavarnway has become somewhat of an afterthought, and many have viewed him as a potential casualty of the Red Sox’s catching logjam. However, Lavarnway will play some first base during spring training, and that should increase his value if his power stroke returns.

-Lavarnway isn’t as highly regarded as he once was, but the 26-year-old filled in nicely last season when Ross was out with concussions. He’s not a slouch, even if he’s not a future superstar.

-Butler, who turned 27 in October, isn’t going to wow anyone. But he has the potential to be a backup at the major league level, and he certainly adds another option if something goes awry in 2014.

-Blake Swihart, who turns 22 in April, is a little farther away from the majors, but scouts have lauded his overall makeup.

Swihart, a switch-hitter, became a full-time catcher upon being drafted in 2011, so he’s certainly still developing. He has shown good gap power from both sides of the plate, though, and his athleticism should enable him to thrive regardless of where he plays.

Points of skepticism

-Pierzynski has a reputation of being a polarizing player. While his personality might not be an issue in the Red Sox’s clubhouse, it’s still worth keeping in mind as spring training gets underway.

-Pierzynski and Ross both will be 37 years old this season. Father Time sometimes can be a jerk.

-Pierzynski is an imperfect fit when it comes to the Red Sox’s overall offensive philosophy.

Pierzynski ranked dead last among qualified major leaguers with only 3.27 pitches seen per plate appearance in 2013. His .297 on-base percentage ranked 13th out of 15 major league catchers with at least 450 plate appearances. His 11 walks were his lowest total since 2000, when he had only 96 plate appearances as a 23-year-old.

-Ross dealt with concussions last season, and he admitted during the World Series that there were points last year when he wasn’t sure he’d ever return to baseball.

-Saltalamacchia’s departure is being dismissed by most, yet he was steady throughout much of last season — playoffs notwithstanding. Red Sox pitchers consistently praised Salty’s development behind the plate, particularly from a game-calling standpoint, so there could be an adjustment period as Pierzynski tries to get on the same page as the club’s hurlers.

-The Red Sox are putting a lot of faith in their young catchers to succeed beyond 2014. As is the case with any prospect, you simply never know what can happen.

Reasonable expectations for 2014

Pierzynski has been a workhorse over the years. That shouldn’t change in Boston, although Ross probably will see more playing time than a traditional backup catcher. Ross might start 50-60 games in his backup role, meaning Pierzynski should get roughly 100-110 starts behind the dish.

The Red Sox will get some power from the catching position if Pierzynski and Ross stay healthy and effective throughout the year. They might not get much in the way of on-base ability, though, so the real determining factor in the tandem’s success will be how each backstop handles the pitching staff.

Position beyond 2014

Vazquez seems like the logical choice to become the Red Sox’s starting catcher in 2015 based on his skills, development and current proximity to the majors. Swihart also might factor into the 2015 equation, although his first notable contributions more likely will come in 2016.

Pierzynski’s stop in Boston has the look of a one-year layover. If the Red Sox are prepared to hand the keys to Vazquez in 2015, Ross seems like the more likely candidate of the two veteran catchers to re-sign on a one-year deal next winter.

Down on the farm

Notables: Vazquez, Butler, Lavarnway, Swihart, Jon Denney

Swihart has the highest offensive ceiling. He might be a future star behind the plate.

Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said last month that Vazquez is on the cusp of being major league-ready.

Butler could become a backup at some point — whether in Boston or elsewhere — and Lavarnway is entering a make-or-break year in terms of his time in the Red Sox organization. It’s hard to pinpoint what Lavarnway’s future holds, but if he can adapt to first base and regain his power stroke, the Red Sox might consider keeping him around despite their catching surplus.

Denney was drafted in the third round last June despite questions about if he’d sign. The 19-year-old was considered a first-round talent at the time, and his ceiling is very high, whether it be at catcher or another position.

Editor’s note: NESN.com will provide an organizational outlook for each position in the days leading up to the Red Sox’ first full-squad spring training workout. The schedule for the outlooks is below. Click the links to view each outlook.

Monday, Feb. 10: first base
Tuesday, Feb. 11: second base
Wednesday, Feb. 12: third base
Thursday, Feb. 13: shortstop
Friday, Feb. 14: outfield
Monday, Feb. 17: catcher
Tuesday, Feb. 18: starting rotation
Wednesday, Feb. 19: bullpen

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

Photo via Twitter/@JillSoPhotos21

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