PETER ABRAHAM | AROUND THE HORN
Matthew J. Lee/globe staff/file 2017
(Sixth in a series examining the Red Sox roster for 2018.)
The Red Sox haven’t had a catcher start 100 games since Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2013. Prior to that, you have to go back to Victor Martinez in 2010.
Former manager John Farrell believed in the idea that catcher should be a shared position and tried his best to divide the playing time. Christian Vazquez started 85 games last season and Sandy Leon 77.
That could change in 2018, with Vazquez seemingly prepared to become the primary catcher.
The 27-year-old hit .290 with a .735 OPS and gained more playing time as the season went on. Vazquez had a .812 OPS after the All-Star break and added a spark to the offense at a time when one was needed.
Vazquez also threw out 21 of 50 base stealers, his 42 percent success rate well above the league average of 27 percent.
“It was feeling healthy more than anything else,” Vazquez said at the end of the season. “I was back to being myself.”
Vazquez missed the entire 2015 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. He returned to the majors on April 15, 2016, as the starting catcher but lost the job in July and was sent back to Triple A Pawtucket.
While Vazquez’s elbow was sound, the year off caused a loss of arm strength and accuracy. His timing at the plate also suffered. It wasn’t until last season that he felt normal again.
“You don’t realize how much a year off changes everything until you go through it,” Vazquez said.
Leon hit .310 with an .845 OPS in 2016, taking over the spot and adding surprising offensive contributions. But he fell back to .225 with a .644 OPS last season.
Outside of 2016, Leon has hit .208 with a .548 OPS in his six-year career. If Vazquez builds on his success last season, Leon projects as a backup.
Blake Swihart was the 26th overall pick of the 2011 draft and signed to a $2.5 million bonus. That was more than 12 of the players picked before him, including Jose Fernandez and Sonny Gray.
But Swihart has played only 109 major league games, 25 in the last two seasons. At 25, he is out of minor league options and will arrive at spring training knowing he has to make the team or be designated for assignment.
Swihart would seem to have two roads to the roster. One would be to beat out Leon and become the primary backup. The other would be to make the team as a utility player capable of catching along with playing left field, third base, and first base.
Whether Swihart can get enough work at these positions to make his case remains to be seen. But at least he is finally healthy after spending much of the last two seasons recovering from a severe injury to his left ankle.
Swihart also has suffered from some poor decision-making by the organization.
He was the Opening Day catcher in 2016 but started only six games before being demoted to Pawtucket. He was then converted to left field, rushed to the majors on May 20, and wrecked his ankle when he ran into a wall at Fenway Park two weeks later. Swihart has been little factor since.
Given the scarcity of catching throughout baseball, Swihart will get every chance in spring training. Former Sox captain Jason Varitek, a special assistant in the front office, remains a Swihart proponent.
Beyond Swihart, there is not much depth at the position beyond the usual assortment of minor league veterans.
Jake Romanski is entering his sixth season with the Sox. He got into 15 Triple A games last season. Jordan Procyshen is another candidate to be invited to major league spring training. He has four years of major league experience.
The best pure prospect is 21-year-old Roldani Baldwin, a converted third baseman who started 86 games for Single A Greenville last season and hit .274 with an .800 OPS. He had 50 extra-base hits in 368 plate appearances.
Dan Butler, who caught 72 games for Pawtucket last season, is a minor league free agent. The 31-year-old has been with the Red Sox since 2009 with the exception of 2015, when he was in the Nationals organization. It’s uncertain at this point whether he returns.
Primary 2017 starter: Christian Vazquez.
Projected 2018 starter: Vazquez.
Major league depth: Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart.
Prospects to watch: Roldani Baldwin.
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