FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox will have five catchers in uniform by the time spring training starts officially next week. But for now there is only one, 22-year-old Blake Swihart.
So when lefthanded reliever Craig Breslow decided to throw in the bullpen on Monday morning despite the steady rain falling at Fenway South, Swihart strapped on his gear and got behind the plate.
He was happy to get the opportunity. One of Swihart’s goals this spring is to learn the nuances of all the pitchers on the major league roster in case he is called up during the season. The Sox are expected to start the year with Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan on the roster but Swihart is next in line.
“I need to get to know these guys, what they like to throw. Every pitcher is a little different and I need to learn the techniques they have,” he said. “That was one of the reasons to get here early, to build a relationship with these guys. My goal is to catch everybody at least once. I caught four bullpens [on Monday] and that was big for me.”
Swihart started last season with Double A Portland and hit .300 with an .840 OPS before earning an August promotion to Triple A Pawtucket. He played in 18 regular-season games for the PawSox and seven more during the International League playoffs.
It was the first time in his professional career Swihart was promoted in-season and it was a learning experience.
“I was going into a new pitching staff and had to jump into the fire and get on the same page as they are,” he said. “I enjoyed it. I love a challenge like that.”
The PawSox had some older pitchers and Swihart learned how to adjust to how they wanted the game called.
“They know what works for them and it was up to me to learn that,” he said. “That experience is going to help me this spring.”
Most evaluators rank Swihart as the top prospect in the Red Sox organization and one of the 10 best in the game. He started catching as a junior in high school but has developed excellent skills behind the plate.
He’s also uncommonly athletic for a catcher. Swihart has 21 steals over the last four seasons along with 22 home runs. The switch-hitter is up to 200 pounds and expects that to translate into more power.
“I hope when I look at the scoreboard this season it still doesn’t say 175 pounds,” he said. “That was a few years ago. They need to change that. I’m a lot bigger, stronger, and faster than I was. That has been my focus in every offseason.
“I get asked a lot what catchers I try and model my game after. I pick and choose and take what works best for me. I want to make my own breed of catcher.”
Jason Varitek, a switch-hitting catcher with two World Series rings, has watched Swihart closely in his role as a special adviser to general manager Ben Cherington. The two also have worked together on the field.
“I like him a lot. He has the attitude you want to see as a catcher,” Varitek said. “Every year, he’s added something to what he does. Like any young catcher, there are things to learn. But he’s going to get there.”
Said Swihart: “Jason is a book. I try to learn everything I can from him. We don’t just talk catching, we talk switch- hitting. He’s given me a lot of pointers. When he talks I listen because he always had something valuable to say. He acted like he knew me from the start and I’ve always appreciated that.”
As Swihart dutifully catches in the bullpen, he ignores the possibility that he could be traded. The presence of Vazquez, a defensively gifted 24-year-old, has teams inquiring about Swihart. One match could be the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a package for ace lefthander Cole Hamels.
“Everyone talks about that. Whatever happens, I’ll play where I need to play,” Swihart said.
“I want to play here because I’m happy here. This is a historic franchise and a great franchise to play for. There are great players and great people here and I want to be part of that.
“I can’t pay attention to rumors. It’s not part of my job.”
Swihart had some fun before he reported to camp, going to Las Vegas with some buddies for the Super Bowl and to watch the UFC card headlined by Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz.
As he sat in the stands at MGM Grand Arena, Swihart noticed somebody sitting ringside waving at him. It was Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino, a diehard MMA fan.
Victorino called Swihart down to get a better view.
“It was pretty awesome Shane did that,” Swihart said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure he even knew me. It was a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to seeing him and the rest of the guys.”
. . .
Righthander Matt Barnes, lefthander Brian Johnson, shortstop Deven Marrero, and righthander Anthony Varvaro all arrived at camp . . . Breslow said he already has thrown off a mound eight times. The 34-year-old seems totally recovered from the shoulder discomfort that affected him last season . . . Jackie Bradley Jr., who now owns a home 40 minutes away from Fenway South, worked out at the facility all winter and is up to 200 pounds . . . Sox radio voice Joe Castiglione, who spends the winter in Fort Myers, stopped by on his bicycle.