FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Red Sox acquired a backup catcher from the Nationals for cash, and in the process bought time for the development of Blake Swihart while adding depth to account for the loss of catcher Christian Vazquez.
Sandy Leon, 26, is characterized by multiple talent evaluators as a defense-first switch-hitter who has strong pitch framing skills and has thrown out 45 percent of potential base stealers in his minor league career. He's out of minor league options, so the Sox either have to carry him in the big leagues as the backup to Ryan Hanigan or expose him to waivers.
There is a strong chance Leon will open the season in the big leagues, with Humberto Quintero (like Leon, a defensively minded catcher who signed a minor league deal with the Sox) and Blake Swihart in Triple A.
The motivation for the Leon acquisition was in no small measure a desire to give Swihart still-needed time to complete his development in the minors rather than rush him to the big leagues before he's ready. Swihart is considered to have a very high ceiling, but he's also not yet a polished big league-ready product. He labored last week to get on the same page as opening day starter Clay Buchholz, an indication that his game-calling skills require further refinement.
Swihart has caught just 18 games above Double A and has been a full-time catcher for just three full seasons entering this one. He's described as having tremendous aptitude, and he's made immense defensive strides since entering the Sox' system. But team officials felt it was unfair to thrust Swihart into a part-time big league role when both his offense and defense can benefit considerably from steady, regular playing time in Pawtucket.
While Swihart is considered to have two-way star potential down the road, his offensive approach as a switch-hitter remains in need of further refinement. Had the Sox carried Swihart in the big leagues, the expectation (based in part on the lessons offered from young players like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks in 2014) would have been that he would not have been an offensive contributor while adjusting to life in the majors this year.
Leon isn't expected to offer much by way of offense, either. The switch-hitter owns a career .236/.324/.329 slash line in eight minor league seasons. He's posted a .189/.280/.253 in 107 big league plate appearances.
But the Red Sox believe that, with a lineup that appears to have rare middle-of-the-order depth, they can prioritize defense from their catchers, and of Leon, Quintero, and Swihart, Leon is considered the best defender – so long as he can gain comfort with the Red Sox pitching staff through an end-of-spring crash course.
The Red Sox now appear to have a major league catching tandem with which they're comfortable in Ryan Hanigan and, in all likelihood, Leon. Quintero would provide the team with early-season protection in Triple A should either Hanigan or Leon suffer an injury.
That would (or at least should) permit the Sox to keep Swihart in the minors until his player development suggests that he's ready for more.
To clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Leon, the Red Sox placed Vazquez on the 60-day disabled list due to a right elbow sprain. Vazquez is scheduled to see Dr. James Andrews on Wednesday for a second opinion, but the fact that the Sox have resigned themselves to his sidelining for at least two months adds to the growing signs that suggest the potential for Tommy John surgery.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.