FORT MYERS, Fla. — Blake Swihart may or may not be part of the Red Sox’ big league roster on Opening Day. Although there is uncertainty on that point, there is less on another: Swihart is almost certainly a trade untouchable.
Swihart almost surely possessed such a status even before a cloud took residence over the 2015 outlook for catcher Christian Vazquez. But the ominous injury to Vazquez cemented the view that the Sox simply aren’t in position to deal away a potentially elite prospect at a position of both attrition and scarcity.
Prior to the signing of Yoan Moncada, Swihart represented the Sox’ clear consensus top prospect and likely ranked as the top catching prospect in the game. He possesses the tools to offer rare multifaceted impact as a catcher who can deliver above average defense, standout leadership, and the ability to hit for average and power from both sides of the plate.
While the presence of Vazquez created some basis for suggestions that the Sox could deal from a position of strength, the reality they faced was this: Neither Vazquez nor Swihart has offered definitive proof that they have a future as an everyday catcher, let alone an above-average (or even an elite) one. Given the absence of that proof, and given the potential for one of them to fall off in terms of either performance or health, the Sox would put themselves in a position of potential long-term vulnerability if they entertained the idea of trading one of them.
And now, the elbow injury to Vazquez offers a reminder of the reality of prospect attrition. Teams accumulate two or more prospects for a position and watch them rise through the minors, hoping one will withstand the elements of derailment. So often, a perceived surplus turns into a shortage, as the Sox have seen numerous times.
The ability to hit at the upper levels, particularly in the big leagues, represents a separator. So does the ability to stay healthy. And right now, the Sox face an anxiety-filled exploration of the latter trait with Vazquez.
The team has yet to reach a formal diagnosis with the catcher, at least none that it has shared. But because a second opinion on his elbow is being sought, that a contrast MRI (in which dye is injected into the elbow to get a better read on whether there’s a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament) is being contemplated, helps to clarify the dark undertones to the way his situation is being discussed.
“He’s young. He’s going to have a bright future. It’s just too bad. I haven’t had a chance to really talk to him yet. I just kind of heard today as well. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But, man, he’s a good kid. He worked hard. It’s just too bad,” said fellow Red Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan. “He’ll be back. He’s just going to have to put in the work to get himself back. The positive thing is, whatever happens, he won’t have to deal with it the rest of his career. Get it taken care of now. I don’t know the details or what they’re saying now, but I was looking forward to working with him this year. It’s just too bad.”
Clearly, until Vazquez is able to demonstrate that he is healthy and can produce both offensively and lead a pitching staff, the Sox are in no position to deal Swihart to address another need.
Does Vazquez’s injury mean that Swihart will be ticketed for the Opening Day roster? Not necessarily. Indeed, perhaps the only scenario in which a call-up for Swihart would make clear sense is if Vazquez’s absence would be a matter of days, not weeks.
Swihart has meaningful developmental steps in front of him before he’s big league-ready. He showed well in major league camp this year, hitting .333 with a .385 OBP and .500 slugging mark, but he got carved up at the end of 2014 in his first exposure to the advanced competition of Triple A, hitting .261/.285/.377 with two walks and 15 strikeouts while chasing pitches out of the zone. Perhaps more significantly, while he’s made tremendous strides in his three full professional seasons to the point where he projects as a future plus defender, he faces a need for more refinement in his game-calling and defense.
Red Sox manager John Farrell hasn’t ruled out the possibility of having Swihart on Opening Day. But the 22-year-old needs to catch advanced pitching on nearly an everyday basis. A long-term callup now (if Vazquez will be out for months) to back up Hanigan would deny him that developmental opportunity.
That said, a best-case scenario with Vazquez could militate in favor of a season-opening promotion for Swihart, mostly because of his roster status. He’s on the 40-man roster and has all three years of options remaining. That means he can be shuttled between Triple A Pawtucket and the big league roster without sacrificing another player on the 40-man roster.
The other catcher who has entered the big league mix as a potential backup to Hanigan is veteran Humberto Quintero, who signed a minor league deal this winter. Quintero is not on the 40-man roster.
If he’s added to the big league roster, Quintero has to be added to the 40-man — which means removing someone else who is on it. (Barring a trade or a longer-term injury that would result in Vazquez’s placement on the 60-day disabled list, the primary candidate to go likely would be righthander Zeke Spruill, who is in his final option year.) In other words, Quintero’s addition to the big league roster would come at the expense of optionable roster depth.
If Vazquez is going to be sidelined for an extended period, the commitment to Quintero on the 40-man is a worthwhile undertaking. Swihart needs time to refine his game-calling in Triple-A to be in consideration for something beyond a short-term callup. He needs to play every day, rather than serving as an understudy to Hanigan in the big leagues.
But if Vazquez will miss just a few games at the start of the year — with the possibility of backdating a disabled list stint to March 27, the earliest he could be activated from the 15-day DL would be April 11 — then it makes little sense to risk losing a depth relief option such as Spruill by having to expose him to waivers.
Moreover, there might be ancillary benefits to calling up Swihart and exposing him to the major league environment while perhaps getting a few firsts out of the way before going back down to Triple A after a brief time in the big leagues with a more precise sense of his developmental needs with Pawtucket. If the big league opportunity was brief, any concerns about Swihart missing steady playing time — and hence development time — in Triple A would be minimized.
So, to reduce the matter:
1. If Vazquez looks likely to be on the DL for just a short time, roster considerations would militate in favor of calling up Swihart.
2. If Vazquez looks like he’ll be sidelined for more than days, then barring a trade for another catcher, Quintero represents the most sensible call-up, with Swihart best positioned to develop by getting regular playing time in Triple A.
The larger point, however, goes beyond whether Swihart’s initial big league opportunity comes now or later in 2015. There remain considerable unknowns with Vazquez and Swihart. While their minor league track records suggest an ability to stay healthy, such an outlook can change in a heartbeat. While their minor league track records suggest that eventually they’ll be able to at least hold their own offensively, the proof won’t come until they’ve done it in the big leagues.
In short, the Sox have two high-ceiling catchers without proven big league track records. There is reason for the club to believe it will have a very valuable everyday player at that position, they don’t know when or with whom that might come, and they can’t even guarantee it will come.
(There was a time, not too long ago, when the team viewed Ryan Lavarnway as on a path to be an above-average everyday catcher. After three stalled years of development in Triple A, he was designated for assignment.)
Given those uncertainties, the idea that the team can afford to trade Swihart or Vazquez at this point — unless it was for an established, star-caliber catcher — is difficult, if not quite impossible, to fathom. At this point, the Red Sox are left to cling to both and to hope for the emergence of one, to hope for the avoidance of worst-case scenarios.