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ALEX SPEIER

Why Christian Vazquez is the least likely Red Sox catcher to be traded

Christian Vazquez hit .216/.237/.324 in the 2018 postseason.
Christian Vazquez hit .216/.237/.324 in the 2018 postseason.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the week when spring training games are scheduled to start, the Red Sox still have three catchers for what they see as a two-man job. Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon, and Blake Swihart all remain in camp, with a sense of uncertainty hovering, given the Red Sox’ stated preference to trade one before the season.

According to team sources, the club remains open to the idea of dealing any of the three, even as there’s been little progress toward a deal. Although prospective return will influence the choice, there’s one catcher who stands out as the hardest to deal.

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Less than 11 months ago, the Red Sox signed Vazquez to a three-year, $13.3 million extension, which takes effect this season and runs through 2021, with a team option for 2022. The commitment signaled the Sox’ view of Vazquez as a championship-caliber catcher whose work behind the plate — supplemented by offense that qualified as solid for the position — made him a team anchor.

Ultimately, that view was validated. Though Vazquez entered the 2018 postseason slated for a time-share with Sandy Leon, his overall performance allowed him to emerge as the primary option. He offered enough offensive contributions — a home run against Zack Britton of the Yankees in a 4-3 win in the Division Series, for instance — to help the Red Sox sustain pressure on opposing staffs throughout the lineup. And with Vazquez behind the plate, the Sox allowed just 2.7 runs per nine innings, going 9-1 in his starts.

That performance set the stage for the final image of the 2018 season: Vazquez leaping into the arms of Chris Sale after a ninth inning in which the catcher was the only person who wasn’t overwhelmed by the lefthander’s slider.

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“I cried the first day I saw that video. It was exciting,” said Vazquez. “I felt like I was flying. I was flying into his arms.

“It was the best moment of my life, that jump. I’m going to save that forever. That picture is in my house, on the wall. I’m going to remember that all my career.”

Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, and Blake Swihart during a spring training workout Sunday.
Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez, and Blake Swihart during a spring training workout Sunday.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

That was the Vazquez in whom the Red Sox believed they were investing. Now, they want Vazquez to take the next step in his career by showing similar urgency throughout the regular season. Early in 2018, Vazquez looked lost at the plate, employing an exaggerated leg kick to try to generate more power. Instead of maintaining the high-contact approach that had served him well in the minors and previous big league seasons, his approach seemed ill-suited for his strengths.

In the regular season, he hit just .207/.257/.283 — numbers that were dampened when his best offensive stretch of the year in June and early July was interrupted by a broken pinky that required surgery and sidelined him for almost two months. In the process, his role as the team’s primary catcher gave way to a time-share with Leon. Vazquez was less concerned about the role change than about his performance.

“I got frustrated because I want to be good, I want to be better, I want to help my team,” he said. “If I’m struggling, I’m not helping the team. That’s why I was frustrated during the season.”

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But the postseason permitted Vazquez a chance to reset. The Red Sox saw a different catcher, and Vazquez acknowledged that he felt like a different player.

“The adrenaline and all the pressure we had to win, I think that helped me to get better in those games, to be consistent,” said Vazquez. “It’s the playoffs. I need to play like that in the season. I need to push myself more in the season, the regular season, to play the way I played in the playoffs. It was amazing.

“Win every pitch, catching every pitch, blocking every pitch — I was playing for something, to get a ring and to be a champion. We did it. If we can do that every day of the season, we’ll be better.”

Offensively, Vazquez spent the offseason getting his swing back under control to maintain better balance while staying behind the ball to give himself a better chance to make consistent hard contact.

“I think right now, he’s in a way better spot than he was at the end of the season mechanically,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett. “In the offseason, everyone is relaxed. You can kind of retrain your brain and your body to move certain ways. I think you need some time away to kind of help.

“[In 2018] he was just searching for the perfect leg kick, the perfect movement, whatever it was. I think he’s found it now. He’s in a really good spot.”

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That belief, in turn, makes Vazquez the least likely of the Red Sox’ three catching candidates to be moved. He’s not off-limits, but given the team’s view that he’s capable of delivering above-average defense in combination with offense that grades as average or better (the MLB average line for catchers last year was .233/.304/.374), he’d be the hardest of the three to trade.

After all, Vazquez is the catcher in whom the team entrusted the lion’s share of its postseason duties. That wasn’t an accident.

“It takes a special person to step up and do that on that stage, and I think he’s that type of guy,” said Barkett. “He proved it at that point: ‘Wow, this kid can play with the whole world watching and play really well.’ ”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.