Blake Swihart is a man of mystery at Boston Red Sox spring training.
The 25-year-old is tearing it up in Grapefruit League action, going 6-for-15 with a home run, four doubles, five RBIs and three runs scored through five games. His specific role with the Red Sox remains undetermined, though, and manager Alex Cora is keeping an open mind.
“You move him around and see how comfortable he is. The more positions the better,” Cora told reporters this week in Fort Myers, Fla., per the Boston Herald. “We don’t have too much time, either. But he can get his reps here. He can get reps on the back fields. The good thing about this situation is he’s willing to do it.
“I told him the other day, I said, ‘Hey, let me know. We’re pushing you.’ He said, ‘I just want to play.’ No surprise there. But it’s cool to see him smiling and moving around and playing well.”
Swihart’s offensive production and positive attitude are encouraging, no doubt. The former top catching prospect underwent season-ending ankle surgery in 2016, was limited to just 68 games across three levels during a lost 2017 and entered this spring not knowing where he’ll play or when he’ll play, especially with the Red Sox seemingly having their backstop situation solidified with starter Christian Vazquez and respected backup Sandy Leon.
And yet here is, thriving in the face of uncertainty.
But for as impressive as Swihart has been this spring, his success only reminds the Red Sox daily of the difficult decision they’ll soon face. Swihart, who turns 26 on April 3, is out of minor league options, meaning the Red Sox must find a spot for him on their major league roster, trade him or designate him for assignment (which likely would result in his exit from the organization).
This ambiguity explains why Swihart will receive ample playing time in the coming weeks. It also explains why the Red Sox are exposing him to several other positions — including first base, third base, the outfield and maybe even second base — in addition to his time spent in catcher’s gear.
“We’re taking baby steps with him,” Cora said. “We can go to first (base) today. We can put him in the outfield. Keep moving him around. He’s in a good spot right now. He’s swinging the bat well, which is great. And it’s not the results, it’s just the at-bats like I said. We’ll keep throwing him out there.”
It’s certainly a luxury to have a player with Swihart’s athleticism and apparent versatility — we’re still learning just how well he can field his position beyond catching — but the “keep throwing him out there” approach feels more like a fallback plan than a concerted effort to broaden his horizons. Consider, for instance, that Swihart still has spent the bulk of his time in camp as a catcher despite the Red Sox’s insistence he could be used in a utility role.
So what should they do?
Well, a trade seems possible, especially with the Red Sox having the two aforementioned catchers, as well as the ultra-versatile Brock Holt (more experience) and infielder Deven Marrero (better defender; out of options) vying for bench spots. But this might require the Red Sox to sell low on a former high-end prospect and a potential impact player, something they could regret the second injuries and/or struggles inevitably crop up across their roster.
After all, Swihart, a switch-hitter, batted a respectable .274 with five home runs, 31 RBIs and a .712 OPS in 309 plate appearances over 84 major league games in 2015, with his most impressive work coming late in the season. It’s not like he’s been overmatched in a relatively small sample size at the highest level.
Thus, unless they’re able to secure a reasonable return (an extra bullpen arm, maybe?), the Red Sox’s best option is to proceed as if Swihart will make their Opening Day roster. Only instead of flying by the seat of their pants, the Red Sox might want to consider opening up the catching competition a bit.
Vazquez and Leon comprise a fine tandem, but the latter provides very little offensively, and Cora even admitted Swihart has been better than advertised defensively as a catcher this spring. The Red Sox shouldn’t rule out the possibility of shifting toward a Vazquez-Swihart tandem in the long run, as it could give Boston the best of both worlds — defense and offense — so long as the pitching staff ultimately takes to the alignment.
“We’re comfortable with the two guys we have, but we’re also comfortable with Blake catching, too,” Cora told reporters Thursday, per The Boston Globe. “Versatility plays at this level. He looked OK at first base, but he’s swung the bat well. One thing that I noticed is that he’s comfortable back there.
“You come to camp with a vision of certain guys. He’s better than I thought he would be. He’s very comfortable back there. You can see he’s relaxed and you like to see that. He’ll catch some more. He needs the repetitions and we’ll see what happens.”
Swihart’s most redeeming quality is his offensive upside, which looks even better if he’s producing at the plate while providing adequate defense behind it. Few catchers across Major League Baseball are as physically gifted as Swihart, and his value — on the trade market, especially — is far greater with him occupying a spot from which teams often receive little offensive output.
Perhaps that would explain why the Red Sox — for as unpredictable as they’ve been amid this unique situation — aren’t ready to completely abandon his catching development in favor of the utility route, which might prove fruitless, anyway, if Swihart’s defense at other positions simply isn’t good enough.
In other words, the whole idea of transforming Swihart into a super utility player who can catch, too, is nice. Maybe he can become some sort of (smaller) Ben Zobrist-Kyle Schwarber hybrid, which would carry immense value at a time when teams are looking for any way to optimize their 25-man rosters.
But at some point, the Red Sox must evaluate whether they’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If Swihart’s a catcher, he’s a catcher. And they should do whatever it takes to make him the best one possible rather than bouncing him around like a piñata.
Until then, we’ll keep a watchful eye on the mystery man, who’s become arguably the most intriguing player at Red Sox camp based on the wide range of possibilities.
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