FORT MYERS, Fla. — Blake Swihart doesn’t want to be known as the next Craig Biggio, a player so athletic he eventually was moved from catcher to second base to outfield.
Biggio’s next move could be getting elected to the Hall of Fame. But Swihart, generously listed at 6 feet 1 inches, 175 pounds, wants to remain a catcher.
Swihart, 21, is about a year behind Christian Vazquez, 23, a prospect the Red Sox value so much they did not re-sign 28-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the offseason.
Swihart, who hit .298 at Single A Salem last season, is a switch-hitter who can run. He stole seven bases and was caught eight times last season, and scouts believe he could be a 20-steal guy.
“Last year [manager Billy McMillon] didn’t let me run that much because he wanted to save my legs,” Swihart said. “I caught 103 games in the regular season and the playoffs, but I know if I can get more opportunities, then I would steal more bases. I feel confident doing it.”
The Red Sox didn’t want the wear and tear to catch up to Swihart, but the former first-round pick said, “I didn’t feel very tired at all. I prepared in the offseason and I feel great. I feel comfortable from both sides of the plate right now. I feel like there’s no weak side and I can concentrate on being a straight switch-hitter.”
Swihart looks like an athlete, although slightly built for a catcher. He actually looks more like a second baseman or an outfielder. He said he gained 17 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
“I want to gain more,” said Swihart, whose father is a nuclear engineer. “My trainer works me out in New Mexico and we do a lot of speed work and agility drills. If anything, I feel like I’m getting bigger and even faster.”
Like any young catcher, Swihart needs to improve on the mental aspect of the game. Calling a game is one of the last things a young catcher masters.
Red Sox catching coach Dana LeVangie said Swihart gets his throws to second base consistently in the 1.8-plus-second mark. LeVangie said that is slightly behind Vazquez, who is said to have the best arm among Red Sox catchers.
The Red Sox are going to have a Vazquez-Swihart catching tandem. That might occur a year from now, but likely by 2016. The Red Sox will have to determine who their long-term starter will be, but that decision is likely two years away.
“I just want to be who I am and not get compared to other catchers,” Swihart said. “It was fun being in my first big league camp and just getting to be around the guys and catching bullpens and being around big leaguers. That’s valuable experience I can store in the back of my mind. After seeing this, it makes you more aware of what you need to do to be a big leaguer.”
Red Sox veteran catcher David Ross was asked his evaluation of both young catchers.
“Very athletic,” Ross said of Swihart. “He’s got an easy swing lefthanded, a great arm. His drill work is so right on the money. He’s a real humble kid, works hard. He listens. He’s got a real good head on his shoulders. He’s got some serious tools and intangibles.
“He’s quick and agile. Catching usually takes that out of you.”
Front and center is Vazquez, who has drawn comparisons to Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. Vazquez has the quick release, calls a good game, and is very sound defensively.
Vazquez’s offense (he had 18 homers in Single A in 2011) has caught the eye of Red Sox manager John Farrell, who said the day before Vazquez was re-assigned to minor league camp, “If a need arose, we feel Vazquez is ready to catch in the big leagues.”
The kudos have flowed fast and furious during training camp.
“Vaz is one of the best young catchers I’ve ever seen,” Ross said. “He’s got a presence about him already. Pitchers like throwing to him, you can tell. He’s like a leader out there. He just needs a little more experience. His catching is second to none. With [Dan] Butler and Swihart, we have a good catching reputation here that I think was started with the many years Jason Varitek caught here and established that reputation of a catcher who is totally prepared.”
Beyond skill set, offensive production, and a great throwing arm comes the most basic attribute for a catcher: trust
“It’s really about establishing trust with the pitcher, knowing you have his back and doing everything you can to help him do his job,’’ Ross said. “That’s so important to a pitcher and your job as catcher is to get the best out of that guy on the mound.
“Whatever it takes. If it’s a kick in the pants or a shoulder to cry on, or you framing pitches for him to steal a strike on a borderline pitch, you do that, and the pitcher will trust you.”
Vazquez seems to have established that with some of the younger pitchers.
“I love working with Vaz because he’s always asking me about my thought process and what I want to do in certain situations,’’ 24-year-old prospect Anthony Ranaudo said. “He really helps me out quite a bit.”
Watching both catchers, Ross quips, “I see skills I used to have. These guys have serious talent. They’re going to be great players.”
Vazquez thought his game took a leap because he played winter ball in Puerto Rico. He spent part of the winter working out with catcher Jose Molina, a 14-year veteran who spent the past two seasons with the Rays.
“I think I became more confident in myself,” Vazquez said. “Being able to play against other big leaguers and handling pitchers — that told me I was ready. It was a good experience to play against that level. Every level you go up, you try to do your best.”
Vazquez has drawn rave reviews for his throwing ability. Two years ago in Single A Salem, he caught 42 percent of runners trying to steal.
“I think I’m throwing the same,” Vazquez said. “I was consistent last year. Working with Dana, I’m getting better. In Puerto Rico, Jose taught me about framing pitches and how to get your chest and body to the ball.”
After six years of work in the minors, Vazquez said, “I think I’m ready. I need the call now, that’s it. Every day I’ve played hard. My bat is getting better. I’m working at that.”
His work with the Molina brothers has rubbed off, too.
And LeVangie notices similarities.
“He catches like the Molinas,” LeVangie said. “He has very confident movements. He’s confident throwing the ball. He’s confident in his set-up behind the plate and that he can handle the pitcher he’s catching that day.”
Yadier Molina, the six-time Gold Glove catcher for the Cardinals, has worked with Vazquez and said, “He’s a smart kid who absorbs everything you tell him. He respects the position and all it takes to be the best you can be with it.
“He wants to be the best. I love that. The Red Sox have a good one there.”
Jose Molina said, “He takes to teaching very well. We worked on framing pitches and the mental part of the game and he’s very sharp with everything. It doesn’t take him long to pick something up.”
And Vazquez’s physical stature (5-9, 195 pounds) is similar to Ruiz, who is 5-10, 205 pounds.
“I’ve never worked with him, but people have told me about him,” said Ruiz, 35, who was an All-Star in 2012. “It’s always nice to have people compared to you.
“I take that as a compliment because I hear he’s going to be a very good major league catcher.”
The Red Sox have so much faith in Vazquez and Swihart they elected to pave the way for the two youngsters by making short-term commitments to Ross and A.J. Pierzynski.
“I noticed that,” Vazquez said. “I just need to keep proving I can be a major league catcher. I can’t wait for the big leagues, but I have to keep earning it. I have to keep working on my game, my offense, my defense. If I do, I’ll get to my dream.”