Throughout the season in Triple A Pawtucket, Blake Swihart’s ankle required a degree of care in his return from a season-ending procedure last August. But on July 4, the condition became too much to continue.
“He’d have good and bad days. . . . You know you’re going to have up and down days coming off of surgery, but this was different,” said PawSox manager Kevin Boles. “There was a significant limp the last day. It was noticeable. . . . I just brought him in and said, ‘OK, where are we at?’ He couldn’t hide it anymore.”
That development forced not only a trip to the disabled list but a determination that, going forward this year, Swihart — who is hitting just .213/.265/.327 in 41 games for the PawSox — will be reduced to part-time work behind the plate. The Red Sox anticipate that he’ll catch once or twice a week going forward. In order to get him additional at-bats, he’ll also serve as a DH and move to other infield positions.
This week, Swihart started taking grounders at first base, and he’s eventually expected to get some playing time at third. In moving the 25-year-old around the field, the Red Sox hope to get him steady playing time after roughly two stop-and-start years in which he’s dealt with numerous injuries (ankle, jammed finger, head-to-head collision).
Swihart, who maintains a steadfast long-term desire to be an everyday catcher, is ready to do anything to stay on the field after experiencing mounting frustration while losing much of both 2016 and 2017 to injuries.
“I’ll admit it. I get [ticked] off. I get [ticked] off at myself. Sometimes you don’t understand why things are happening. You take a freak foul ball to the finger, and you’re like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Your ankle starts barking. You’re trying to play every day, trying to play through so much, but there comes a time when you’ve just got to rest your body and let it heal up,” said Swihart. “The last couple years have been kind of a lot of [messy stuff] going on. But it is what it is and I’ve got to keep going. I’m starting to feel a lot better.
“Being a switch-hitting catcher/first baseman/left fielder/whatever, that’s pretty special if you have all that,” he added. “For me, I just want to play. That’s it. I still want to catch, that’s my main goal. But my body’s just not allowing me to do it right now, so we changed it up.”
Swihart is at a potentially interesting crossroads. He’s out of options after this year, meaning the Red Sox won’t be able to send him back to the minors in 2018. While Swihart and the team both believe that his inability to handle a full-time catcher’s workload will be resolved by next year, it’s nonetheless difficult for the team to project him as an everyday catcher based on this year’s playing-time limitations. The team can get at least the start of a read, however, on what he might look like as a versatile reserve capable of providing depth both at catcher and other positions.
“The remaining six or seven weeks of the season I think are pivotal given that he’s out of options,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who added that the team might try to get additional at-bats for Swihart in winter ball. “We’re talking about a very good athlete. We had no hesitation moving him to left field last year. You know he’s, as an amateur he played all over the field, so we’re tapping back into that.”
Still, Swihart’s path forward with the Red Sox is not without questions, which in turn make it unclear whether he’ll remain a long-term fit in the organization or if he might become a trade chip. Swihart is aware of his out-of-options status and the uncertainty it creates, but takes a pragmatic view of the situation.
“For me, I kind of control that the most — just going out there and playing. I know I’m not hitting like I know I can hit. I just need to go out there and play my game, and I think things will fall where they need to,” he said. “My season starts the day I get activated. Anything that happened before that is history. No matter what that scoreboard says, .200 [average] or whatever, I’m 0-for-0 for the season starting the day I come back. That’s how I’m going to look at it.”