FORT MYERS, Fla — Get it over with, Red Sox.
Make Christian Vazquez your everyday catcher.
Roll back the clock to where you were two years ago before Vazquez came up with a bum elbow at spring training.
Vazquez is the best catcher on the team. He’ll hit enough. It’s OK to tell Sandy Leon that you loved what he did for you last year. But why waste time when Vazquez is going to end up being the everyday catcher anyway?
Vazquez had something of a breakthrough day Sunday at Hammond Stadium. He picked a guy off second base. He threw a guy out who was trying to steal third. He made Chris Sale (five shutout innings) very happy. Oh, and he also hit a three-run homer to lead the Sox to a 7-2 victory over the truly awful Minnesota Twins.
“His ability to impact the game was on display today,’’ said Sox manager, John Farrell. “When you just look at the ability behind the plate, it’s a special player defensively.’’
Bingo. And defense is where it’s at behind the plate. The Sox do not need offense from this position. Vazquez can hit .230-.240 and it’s not going to drag down the Sox. They are going to score a ton of runs. They can afford to carry a defensive whiz behind the dish.
We all know that it is awkward because Leon did such a great job in relief last year. He made 68 starts. He was hitting over .400 for quite a while. He finished with a career-high average of .310 and he helped make Rick Porcello a Cy Young winner. Porcello still loves Leon and Farrell has repeatedly said, “If the season started today, Sandy Leon would be our catcher.’’
Don’t do it, Sox. It’s a trap. It says here that Leon is headed for some serious market correction. He wore down badly at the end of last season and he’s hitting a soft .231 this spring (Vazquez is a mere .233). Leon, two years older than Vazquez, is not the future. Vazquez is the future.
The Sox last year broke camp with Blake Swihart as their starting catcher. After playing six games, Swihart became a left fielder. Leon ultimately came to the rescue. But Vazquez now looks like the catcher he was before his 2015 Tommy John surgery and the Sox would do well to make the move immediately.
Boston’s quest to replace Jason Varitek has been arduous. In the last four seasons, the Sox have opened with four starting catchers: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2013), A.J. Pierzynski (2014), Ryan Hanigan (2015), and Swihart. After Vazquez had a solid second half in his rookie season of 2014 the Sox were committed to making him the guy for the next decade. Then came the injury. Now it looks like he is back.
Vazquez is simply a plus-defender. He was throwing out everybody in sight Sunday. He picked Byung Ho Park off second to end the second inning. He gunned down Byron Buxton to end the third. Sale was appreciative.
“He’s got an incredible arm,’’ Sale said when asked about Vazquez. “He’s quick. I came in after he threw the guy out at second. I was like, ‘That caught me off guard.’ He’s always watching — not only him, but Sandy, too. I throw a pitch and he’ll look up just to see his reaction, he’s talking to guys, he’s moving things around. It’s good to see that.
“I know they’re working their tails off. I see it every day. It’s appreciated on my end and I think all the other pitchers would say the same thing.’’
So which one? Vazquez or Leon?
“Flip a coin,’’ the tall lefty said. “Either one of those guys. They’re as professional as they get in terms of calling a game, making bad pitches look good, making good pitches look better. He came out to me a couple of times and asked me, ‘What do you want to do here?’ ‘I don’t know. Whatever you got.’ It’s nice to be able to have trust in guys like that. I know they’re working hard. I see them every day working their tails off. Being able to trust in those guys, trust in the process, it’s nice.’’
Unless the Sox trade Leon, this means there’s really no way for Swihart to break camp with the team. He’s hitting .325 and has been better behind the plate, but he has minor league options and Vazquez does not.
Vazquez says his arm is back to where it was two years ago. When he was asked if he felt he’d proved he belongs on the team, he answered, “Of course, yes. I want to win a World Series. That’s the goal for everybody and I want to help that.’’
They can do it now or they can do it later, but Christian Vazquez is destined to be the everyday catcher on this team.