FORT MYERS, Fla. — What now?
Questions dominate the Red Sox' catching situation while the team awaits a definitive diagnosis and recommendation from Dr. James Andrews on the injured right elbow of Christian Vazquez.
While the Sox do not yet know how long their 24-year-old catcher will be out, the possibility of Tommy John surgery is real, to the point where Vazquez was placed on the 60-day disabled list Monday.
The development is a disappointment for both the Sox, who considered Vazquez a Gold Glove-caliber game-changer behind the plate, and for the player, who was on the cusp of a tremendous opportunity and will instead miss up to a year of growth at the big league level.
"It's a young guy, extremely talented, a lot to like about him as a person and what he showed in the 55 games or so that he caught for us last year," said manager John Farrell. "The time missed will interrupt his development at the major league level, and what I mean by that, his overall game-calling and running of a game, which has been solid, there's always got to be things he can learn.
"That's going to be interrupted at this point. It's a blow to us. It's a blow to him."
The Sox made a move to add catching depth Monday, acquiring Sandy Leon — whose strength is defense — from the Washington Nationals for cash. But how is the team equipped to handle life without Vazquez?
The Sox thought they had a fairly solid formula: Entrust Vazquez with the responsibility of being their primary catcher, but supplement him with a backup capable of handling a significant workload and perhaps even step in and start if Vazquez suffered an injury or dealt with the kind of the struggles faced by Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks in 2014.
"We targeted someone that had the capability of being more than your traditional backup of 40 games caught, just based on where our depth was and who we were comfortable bringing to the big leagues," said manager John Farrell.
The Sox, said assistant general manager Mike Hazen, had been tracking Ryan Hanigan for some years as a trade possibility, but when the Reds dealt him to the Rays (who signed him to a three-year deal) before the 2014 season, he appeared an unlikely candidate to join them.
However, a three-way deal that shipped Hanigan from Tampa Bay to the Padres in December created an opening.
"Once [players] get into the division, it becomes a little more complicated [to trade for them]," said Hazen. "Not that we would ever shut off the idea of trading within the division, but it becomes complicated, because with any trade, you need two players. The other club may not want to trade within the division.
"Once he went to San Diego, it freed that up a little bit."
The Sox were able to acquire Hanigan, who they felt was capable of 80-100 games behind the plate if needed, in exchange for Middlebrooks. They felt they had insurance for Vazquez and could avoid rushing Blake Swihart to the big leagues before he had a chance to round out his development in Triple A.
The team's focus with catching was, and is, on defense. With a lineup that runs eight-deep with potential threats, the Sox viewed offense from the catchers as a bonus.
"Our catcher was going to hit ninth no matter what, who they are," said Farrell. "I think that's a sign of the strength of the rest of our starting lineup."
Comfortable with Hanigan?
There are durability questions surrounding Hanigan, who has played as many as 100 games just once (in 2012, when he played 112 with the Reds, including 98 starts). In no other season has he caught more than 89 games or started more than 73. Part of the reason the Rays dealt Hanigan and brought back Rene Rivera from the Padres was their concern about Hanigan's ability to assume a starter's workload.
If Vazquez's injury is a season-ender, the Sox view 100 games as a decent approximation of what Hanigan can handle.
"I think that's probably a general ballpark marker," said Hazen. "I'd say that's a fair target if we can get there. Maybe that's a little optimistic. I don't know. But he's done real well so far, especially watching him with our starting pitchers."
Offensively, Hanigan is known for solid, competitive at-bats. Though he has little power, he's a career .256 hitter with a .353 on-base percentage.
He has struggled the last two years, hitting .208/.312/.293, but his batting average on balls in play (.228) has been well below his career mark (.278), which raises the possibility that he's encountered some bad luck.
Still, Hanigan's offense is secondary to his work behind the plate. He doesn't have Vazquez's arm, but he ranks third in the majors in caught stealing percentage (33.8 percent) among catchers with at least 500 games.
His career 3.61 catcher's ERA is tops in the majors in that group. He is considered one of the top pitch framers in the big leagues, with particular skill at the bottom of the strike zone, so his skills are a good fit for this staff.
He's not a star, but he can hold his own, and he was a leader of a Reds pitching staff that made the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, to the point where his popularity with Cincinnati's rotation relegated Devin Mesoraco — an All-Star in 2014 — to a backup role until Hanigan was traded.
Who is the backup?
The job of Hanigan's backup will come down to Humberto Quintero, who signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox in January, and Leon.
Many assumed that Swihart, who is on the 40-man roster, would be the choice if the Sox wanted offense from Hanigan's sidekick. But given the transitional challenges Swihart is likely to face in his first exposure to the big leagues — especially if that first exposure came now, with just 18 games of experience above Double A — the Sox have to assume that he'd offer little to no offense out of the chute.
That, in combination with the fact that the team feels it can carry a catcher who provides limited offense, focused the team's decision on the work of its catchers with the pitching staff.
"You look at the way guys are handling pitchers in the moment, their game-calling, their defensive abilities," said Farrell. "Nothing will be omitted when we talk about how we're going to start the season with the catcher in addition to Ryan Hanigan."
According to pro scouting director Jared Porter, the Sox signed Quintero, 35, based on his catch-and-throw skills, and he grades well in terms of pitch framing and blocking. He's also thrown out 33 percent of base stealers in his career.
Quintero's credentials as a catcher aren't questioned. But he's been relegated to career backup status because he's offered almost nothing with the bat, hitting a career .234/.267/.327 in 471 games. He averaged 55 starts a year for the Astros, Royals, Phillies, and Mariners from 2008-13, then caught just three games as a backup with Seattle last year.
Leon is a catcher in a similar mold to Quintero: a glove-first option who has thrown out 45 percent of potential base stealers in his minor league career and frames pitches well but who hasn't hit.
One evaluator noted that, in his eyes, Leon is a better defender and a better durability bet than Quintero. (Leon has caught more than 90 games in three of the last five years, including more than 130 between the regular season and Venezuelan Winter League in 2013.)
For those reasons, and because he's out of minor league options and can't be sent to Triple A without exposing him to waivers, Leon is the likely call.
Could Swihart be in the mix?
No, and the reason has nothing to do with managing service time. Swihart isn't big league-ready, which is why he was optioned to Triple A March 20.
Swihart is viewed as a future plus defensive catcher, and he threw out 45.6 percent of potential base stealers in the minors last year. But given that he's entering just his fourth year as a full-time catcher, it comes as little surprise that he's viewed as an unfinished product as a game-caller and pitch framer.
"With a young player like Blake, we'd prefer to get them on a little bit of a roll at the minor league level before they come to us," said Farrell. "There's also a need to continue to refine the receiving side of things.
"He's shown well. Just in the big picture, I think we can probably all benefit by playing every day and continuing to work on the areas, the developmental areas that are there."
On one hand, Swihart's ability to learn quickly suggests that there might be a chance for him to make more rapid developmental strides in the big leagues than Triple A. On the other hand, the Sox aren't in a position where they comfortably can endure growing pains from a catcher and have that growth come at the expense of a win. And some of his work-in-progress status as a game-caller has been evident this spring, most recently as he and Clay Buchholz struggled to get in sync.
Ideally, the Sox wanted Swihart to spend most of the year in Triple A, playing nearly every day, to refine his defense and his offensive approach from both sides of the plate. The injury to Vazquez could open the door to an accelerated path to the big leagues for Swihart, but not just yet.
If he excels in Triple A and shows rapid maturation in his defensive work — a distinct possibility, according to some evaluators who rave about how rapidly he's improved — then he could be a consideration to come up and complement or even supplant Hanigan in the middle of the year, much as Vazquez displaced A.J. Pierzynski last summer.
What about a trade?
The Sox are engaged in what one major league source characterized as a standard survey of the player market in the final week of spring training, with the acquisition of Leon representing part of that.
But there are no indications they are making an aggressive bid for someone such as Welington Castillo of the Cubs or Dioner Navarro of the Blue Jays, both of whom are considered more valuable as hitters than defenders.
In some ways, the team's willingness to stand pat reflects the curiosity about Swihart — chiefly, whether he might round out the catching corps early enough in the year that a trade would become superfluous.
Ultimately, Vazquez's injury represents an unsettling development for the Sox, but one that, for now, the team believes it can address without diving into the trade market.
Will they be proven right? Check back in a couple of months.