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Around the Horn: Sox seek clarity at catcher

Vazquez, Swihart, Leon set for spring competition
January 28, 2019

Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Red Sox's positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This first installment examines the catching position.BOSTON -- The Red Sox took a unique approach behind the plate last season, carrying three catchers

Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Red Sox's positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This first installment examines the catching position.
BOSTON -- The Red Sox took a unique approach behind the plate last season, carrying three catchers for nearly the entire season. The only exception was for a six-week stretch beginning in mid-July when Christian Vazquez was out with a fractured right pinkie finger.
Don't expect the three-headed catching combo to return for 2019. It simply isn't sustainable from a roster standpoint, which is why most teams in MLB carry two catchers.
Barring a trade before Spring Training, catchers Vazquez, Blake Swihart and Sandy Leon will all report to camp, making this a story to watch. Look for one of them to be moved before Opening Day.
For a Boston team that has all other positions in the starting nine pretty well set, the fierce competition for the starting catcher spot will be a major storyline during Spring Training.
The breakout candidate
There is reason to believe this could finally be the year of Swihart. While the team was guarded when speaking about the switch-hitter at this time last year, and most often talked about his ability to play different positions, the tone sounds markedly different these days.
"He's coming to camp trying to compete to be our starting catcher," said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. "That's first and foremost. Now, he's also in a position where he has the ability to do a lot of other things, so it can keep his bat in the lineup when other guys are catching, but he's going to be an important part of our club and competing to get a starting spot."

For a team that ranked last in offensive production at catcher last year, an increased role for the 26-year-old Swihart could change that. He has the most offensive upside of the trio. In fact, Swihart was known for his bat in the Minor Leagues. Swihart's offensive capabilities didn't translate in a part-time role last year, when he had a .613 OPS in 207 plate appearances. The Red Sox won't know what type of hitter they truly have until Swihart gets a bigger opportunity.
Defense is actually the reason the Red Sox are optimistic about Swihart these days. He made a lot of progress behind the scenes last season working with catching instructors Jason Varitek and Chad Epperson, and the Red Sox would like to see how those improvements play out on the field.

"Defensively, you can see Blake, the strides he made: blocking pitches, taking ownership of scouting reports and calling games," said manager Alex Cora.
The safe choice
The Red Sox essentially committed to Vazquez as their catcher of the immediate future when they signed him last offseason to a three-year, $13.55 million contract that includes an option for 2022. This is why keeping him in place as the lead catcher represents the safe and more conventional choice.
However, the Red Sox will go with whichever catcher they think gives them the best chance.
Vazquez was on pace to get the most starts among the catching trio last year until his injury got in the way. He wound up making 67 starts, 11 shy of Leon. His offense (.207/.253/.283) was a major disappointment. Perhaps he was pressing too much after the contract extension. Look no further than his 2017 numbers (.290/.330/.404) to see that Vazquez has the capability to be a decent hitter.
While he is known for having a cannon arm and has good skills with his glove, Vazquez has been inconsistent as a game-caller during his career. The Red Sox felt Vazquez made some strides in the postseason last year, and he was behind the plate when Chris Sale made that last wipeout slider that ended the World Series.

"With Christian, what you saw in September and October, that's the guy we wanted from the get-go," Cora said. "He was outstanding."
The underdog
Leon has been counted out before and re-emerged, so who is to say he can't do it again?
It has become clear that his offensive breakout in 2016 (.310/.369/.476) was an outlier. But to stay with the Red Sox going forward, Leon needs to be more productive than last season, when he became a near automatic out the final two months of the regular season and into the playoffs. Leon's OPS for the season was an anemic .511. At the very least, Leon needs to revert back to what he was in '17, when he had a .644 OPS.
So why is Leon still with the Red Sox despite his offensive deficiencies? He is their best overall defender behind the plate. Leon has soft hands, tremendous blocking skills and a strong arm. Also, the pitchers love throwing to him, particularly Sale.

How to break the logjam?
After a couple of years of hedging their bets behind the plate, the Red Sox are approaching the time when they at least have to decide which two catchers they want to move forward with. All three are out of Minor League options, which is why the team kept all of them last season.
So who do you trade?
Swihart is probably the catcher who would bring back the best return in a trade for these reasons: He has untapped potential at the plate; he is improving in the field; and he has four more years until free agency. But those reasons also might represent why the Red Sox end up keeping him.
Vazquez's contract ($2.85 million in '19, $4.2 million in '20 and $6.25 million in '21) is affordable enough the next two seasons, and his arm could draw some interest from other teams.
Leon likely wouldn't be able to drum up much of a return in a trade. If the Red Sox don't find the trade they are looking for with Swihart or Vazquez, they could always designate Leon for assignment and hope no team claims him. At least that way, they could keep him as depth in the organization.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.