Pop quiz: What player on the Red Sox active roster has been in the organization the longest?
Jackie Bradley Jr. and Matt Barnes entered the farm system in the franchise-changing draft of 2011. Brandon Workman’s tenure dates to one year earlier, in 2010, while Xander Bogaerts signed out of Aruba in 2009.
None has been in the Red Sox organization as long as Christian Vazquez, a player who has developed in 12 years since being drafted in 2008 into an unlikely franchise cornerstone.
In a 60-game season, it feels as if Vazquez has already saved the Red Sox from oblivion. He was a game-changing offensive force in a two-game sweep of the Mets in CitiField, going 4 for 8 with three homers while driving in six and helping to navigate the pitching staff through steady waves of high-leverage situations. His contributions may have been the difference between a 1-6 record and the 3-4 mark the Sox took into Yankee Stadium on Friday night.
Vazquez’s numbers through five games — 8 for 19 with four homers and eight RBIs — are ridiculous, building upon last year’s unexpected show of power (.276/.320/.477 with 23 homers). After years of figuring out whether Vazquez, Sandy Leon, or Blake Swihart deserved the lion’s share of playing time, the Red Sox now have an answer.
“Over the last couple of years, watching him come into his own offensively, it’s awesome to watch,” said Workman. “He’s now gone from a defensive catcher to he’s the complete package.”
It’s worth rewinding to the beginning of that minor league tenure to realize just how unlikely a trajectory Vazquez has followed.
“Nobody,” once recalled Cleveland assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, a longtime minor league and major league hitting coach in the Red Sox organization, “thought this guy was going to be a major leaguer.”
In retrospect, it’s hard to fault such an outlook. Vazquez didn’t look the part when he arrived in pro ball.
The team took him out of high school in Puerto Rico in the ninth round of the 2008 draft and signed him for $80,000 — a pittance in a draft in which the Sox spent more than $10 million overall, including a $150,000 bonus on 50th rounder Kyle Stroup.
That summer, Vazquez struggled physically to last nine innings behind the plate in a game while hitting .190/.266/.207 with one extra-base hit. The following year, he hit .123/.250/.246 in 21 games for the Lowell Spinners. At 18, he was extremely young for the league, but it was necessary to squint to see beyond those struggles.
“Vazquez is a fascinating case when you think back on it,” former Spinners teammate Alex Hassan, who is now the Twins farm director, emailed. “He definitely had skills … but you could tell he just did not yet have the strength that he would later grow into.”
The performance track — and the fact that the teenager was splitting time two and three ways at most minor league stops in his early career, while also occasionally making starts in the infield — hardly encouraged conviction that Vazquez was a future big leaguer. But at least one person was convinced of such a path: Vazquez himself.
“What I remember is the unwavering confidence he always had in himself. He always was talking about being in the big leagues and being a big leaguer. His mind was set on making it,” said Sox assistant pitching coach Kevin Walker, who was Lowell’s pitching coach in 2009. “He was willing to do everything it took to make it. That’s the burning desire he has. He’s had to work for everything to kind of put his name out there. Christian wasn’t looked at as [a top prospect]. But in his mind, he was going to be a guy.”
With his work ethic, Vazquez endeared himself to members of the Red Sox coaching staff, among them Luis Lopez (a hitting coach who worked with him in Single A Greenville in 2010 and 2011) and catching instructor Chad Epperson. Over time, that work — and his improved physical strength and conditioning — earned him growing opportunities and allowed him to start opening eyes.
The player who had chiefly looked to shoot the ball to right field and right-center at the start of his career learned to drive the ball on occasion. And over time, he started to hit enough that his dazzling defensive skills — the elite arm, strong hands, agility, and leadership — put him on the map as not just a potential big leaguer but a potential starter.
Unlike most top prospects, Vazquez didn’t fast-track through the minors. He took six years to navigate through the minors, and his ascent in the big leagues was stalled by Tommy John surgery that sidelined him in 2015 and inconsistency — particularly offensively — that followed his return.
Nonetheless, the determination to improve led to steady progress and ongoing evolution. Unsatisfied with merely being a big leaguer, Vazquez believed after he emerged as the Sox’ behind-the-plate leader in the 2018 postseason that he had the ability to take his game to another level.
“I was tired of hitting ninth,” he said. “I wanted to be a different player. I wanted to feel like I’m helping the team both ways.”
He is now doing just that, in a way that only he had the audacity to imagine back in 2008 and 2009.
“I wish that I could look back on those days and say I had a crystal ball and said he’d be who he is now. I can’t say that,” said Walker. “His confidence and his belief in himself is the biggest separator from most guys. He never had any doubt about what he was going to do. That’s special. I think he’s evolving into even a better player. We’re starting to see that. He’s turned himself, to me, into one of the top guys in the game.”