Is it now or never for Blake Swihart?
Is he going to get his chance to be more of a full-time catcher in 2019? Is he trade bait? Is he destined to be a utility player on a Red Sox team that already has one of the best utilitymen in the game in Brock Holt?
Nobody seems to have an answer to these questions.
If he is a catcher, then he’ll be one of the most athletic ones in baseball. There’s not one catcher who can match Swihart’s speed, though as catchers play more, they tend to get slower because of the wear and tear on their legs.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has indicated that the team is unlikely to carry three catchers, as it did last season. Swihart was carried because he was out of options, which also will be the case this season. But it sounds as if one of the catchers won’t be around.
Sandy Leon is a favorite of the pitching staff, but he hit .177 last year.
Christian Vazquez is likely to be the No. 1 catcher, given his prowess behind the plate and a bat that seemed to come around later in the year.
And then there’s Swihart.
He was the highly touted catching prospect until he broke his ankle while playing the outfield in 2016. It took him a while to recuperate. A switch-hitter, Swihart has always been a good offensive player, but he simply hasn’t caught enough for anyone to say, yes, give him the No. 1 job.
Manager Alex Cora has said all the right things, like, “We have faith in all three of our catchers.”
I’ve asked Cora in the past whether Swihart can be a No. 1 catcher, and Cora has answered yes.
In the times we saw Swihart behind the plate, he did a fine job. His athleticism allows him to block balls pretty effectively. He has a plus arm.
Dombrowski said he has fielded calls on his catchers, but that nothing is imminent. His expectation is that he will not have three catchers when Opening Day arrives, but he wasn’t as definitive on whether he would have three at the start of spring training.
“They just told me to come in and be ready to catch, so that’s what I’m doing,” said Swihart at a press conference before Thursday night’s Boston Baseball Writers dinner. “That’s the goal coming into spring training is to do whatever you can to help the team. I’ve always had that mind-set, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on this offseason.”
Swihart said that while he would like to be a No. 1 catcher, he doesn’t mind the utility role.
“I kind of like going all over the field and doing whatever I can to help the team win,” Swihart said. “It was tough at the beginning to learn how to do it, but by the All-Star break, I think I had a good understanding of how to do it — how to move around the field and play my best wherever they wanted me to play.
“And the big thing was keeping my body ready to be able to do all of those things or react to being thrown into a game at midgame.”
And when he broke his ankle, he broke it playing left field. He’s never been hurt behind the plate.
“Just playing a position I wasn’t used to, I guess,” shrugged Swihart.
Missing that time really set him back. He went from prospect to a young player trying to recuperate and find himself.
“But I learned from it,” he said, “from being able to watch baseball while recovering. I think even though I couldn’t be out there I got better in other ways, so I think being able to watch guys and how they were doing things, I think, was invaluable to me.”
Swihart said he spent a lot of time blocking balls, just catching pitchers and learning what they like to throw.
Calling a game, he said, is something that all catchers have to get better at, as hitters change around baseball.
“You have to grow with the game,” he said.
And he doesn’t buy the theory that catchers lose their speed over time.
“No. Not for me,” he said. “I pride myself on being an athletic catcher, so I do a lot of sprints in the offseason. I’m trying to do everything I can to keep it.”
The other thing he’s done this offseason, as he works out near his home in New Mexico with Houston third baseman Alex Bregman, is work on his righthanded swing “and it feels good now.”
Swihart said he has no idea what could unfold after camp begins Feb. 13 for pitchers and catchers, but one thing he’s likely never to stop hearing is constant trade talk surrounding him.
“Heard it since the day I was drafted,” Swihart said. “So I’m used to that. I just want to show that I’m a good player, and I’d love to do that here in Boston. What we experienced last season was incredible. It’s an experience I will never forget.
“It’s a big year for me. I know that. I’m going to be ready for whatever I need to do. I have a lot of faith in my ability and I’ll show it.”