For Red Sox players, the rumors are unavoidable even if unwanted. With their team in possession of the worst record in the American League East, it’s no secret that virtually any player on the roster could be dealt before next Monday’s trade deadline.
A ticket out of Boston would come with the benefit of relocation into pennant races. But that doesn’t mean that the possibility is a welcome one — particularly for catcher Christian Vazquez, the longest-tenured member of the Red Sox organization among active players.
When Vazquez signed a three-year, $13.55 million deal that runs through 2021, he did so in pursuit of both financial security and prolonging his time with the team that drafted him in 2008. Even with his team struggling, the 30-year-old Vazquez isn’t looking for an exit door.
“It’s going to be sad if I [leave] Boston because all my career [has been] here,” the catcher said. “My goal is to retire here. That’s my goal in my career, being part of one organization — have one jersey on my chest for my career. But we don’t control that.”
Indeed, the call belongs to chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox front office. That group confronts with Vazquez the same question that it faces with virtually every member of the roster: Is he part of the team’s foundation or someone whose greatest impact would come from whatever player or players he might bring in return?
The answer is complicated.
It starts with this: How good is Vazquez?
Since the start of 2019, 38 catchers have had at least 300 plate appearances. In that time, Vazquez is hitting .273 (sixth in the group) with a .315 OBP (22nd) and .468 slugging mark (sixth). Defensively, advanced metrics peg him as one of the more impactful catchers, with Baseball Prospectus crediting him with 14 runs saved through his pitch-framing skills since the start of 2019, fifth best in baseball.
That body of work suggests an above-average catcher. Meanwhile, several contending teams have gotten horrendous performances from their catchers. In Cleveland, Sandy Leon is getting most of the playing time while hitting .119 with a .503 OPS. Meanwhile, the Rays (Mike Zunino: .136/.617), the Blue Jays (Danny Jansen: .138/.560), and Padres (Austin Hedges: .149/.556) could use help.
Evaluators view him as an above-average option at the position. Even so, the degree of that upgrade is difficult to discern — especially given that after a strong opening week of the season, he’s struggled offensively, going into Tuesday’s game at .258/.289/.419.
“I’m still seeing a really good defensive catcher. We think he’s done a great job back there. Offensively, he hasn’t been quite as good as he was last year,” said Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “He’s just not locked in like he was a year ago.”
With teams reacting to small samples at the trade deadline, that late performance dip matters. Pitchers —especially relievers — tend to fetch peak trade value when dealt midseason because of their obvious ability to plug holes at a time when alternatives are limited. But catchers don’t necessarily bring the same additive value because of the uniqueness of their roles.
Typically, catchers require weeks or even months to become familiar with a staff. Their skills as pitch-framers or game-callers won’t necessarily become evident if they change teams midseason.
Remarkably, in the 116 World Series, no catcher has ever been traded midseason and started a single World Series game for a team that eventually won a championship. While there are rookies — Buster Posey and Willson Contreras come to mind in recent years — who caught World Series games after a midyear callup, those players were in spring training with the team.
In 1940, the Reds brought Jimmie Wilson off their coaching staff to catch in August, and he ended up being their primary catcher in the World Series. But Wilson had been with the team as a player or coach for years by that point.
“It’s tough,” Vazquez said of a catcher who changes teams mid-year. “You don’t know [anybody] on that new team. I know everybody here. I know what pitches work, what pitches don’t work. But a new team, you need to ask a lot of questions to those pitchers. You feel like a rookie on a new team. You’re quiet. I hope that’s not my case.”
In its own right, that reluctance — a reflection of the challenge presented to a traded catcher — gives some insight into why the trade value of Vazquez may not be sufficient to motivate a deal.
Yes, there will probably be some interest in the Red Sox catcher.
But the view of him as a difference-maker may be measured. Certainly, a case can be made that Vazquez has more value to the Sox over 2021-22 than he would to another team that acquired him now.
Then again, it only takes one team to take a different view — particularly given the still-fresh impressions of Vazquez as an anchor for the Red Sox in the 2018 postseason. And certainly, there is precedent for catchers to fetch a considerable return.
In 2016, the Brewers dealt Jonathan Lucroy to the Rangers at the trade deadline for prospects Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz. A year and a half later, Brinson became a centerpiece in Milwaukee’s deal for Christian Yelich. The trade played a key role in vaulting Milwaukee to contention in 2018-19.
Lucroy played well with the Rangers — who reached the ALDS — in 2016. But the next year, his production fell off drastically and he was dealt to Colorado for a minor leaguer who has yet to progress above A ball. That deal underscored that the Brewers parted with a veteran catcher when his value was at its absolute peak, just before it endured a precipitous decline.
Now, the Sox are tasked with a similar calculus — trying to decide whether Vazquez best fits into their future as an anchor behind the plate or as the anchor of a deal who can bring back young talent, a crossroads that he surely never imagined when he signed his long-term deal with the Sox.
Correction: The original version of this story stated that Darren Daulton was traded midseason to the 1997 Marlins and caught for them in the World Series. Daulton, a former catcher, started for the Marlins in the World Series after a July trade, but his starts came as a first baseman and DH.