Dealing with playing every day in a first full professional season at the age of 20 is enough of a challenge. Add in learning how to catch, with all of those nuances, and it makes it even tougher. That's exactly what 2011 first-round pick Blake Swihart dealt with this season, and by all accounts, the New Mexico native handled it with aplomb.
Swihart, who didn't start catching until his sophomore year in high school and is ranked No. 8 on the Red Sox's Top 20 Prospect list, is continuing to work on his craft during instructional league play in Fort Myers, Fla. Already, he's making his presence felt.
"He's thrown three or four runners out already down there," said Ben Crockett, the Sox's director of player development. "Defensively, it's been impressive. He's really taken some strides forward. The athleticism he's shown behind the plate allows him to pick up things quickly."
Swihart, who took a $2.5 million signing bonus to join the Sox instead of attending the University of Texas on a scholarship offer, threw out just over 31 percent of would-be basestealers in the South Atlantic League this season, and he's always received high marks for his arm strength. His agility allows him to block balls well and Crockett said the young catcher continues to work on receiving and running a staff, things he's continuing to work on this fall. But considering many thought Swihart wouldn't be able to stay behind the plate coming out of the Draft, he's done more than expected defensively.
"For him to go out and do it for a full season, control the running game, learn how to run a game and a pitching staff, he certainly has the athleticism to do it behind the plate," Crockett said. "From our standpoint, the defensive side, it should end up being above average. The progress has come fast enough for him where I think it'll be right in line."
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So will Swihart's offense, though that was never really in doubt. A switch-hitter with the ability to hit for average and power from both sides in the future, he improved that side of his game as well. He's learning to use the middle of the field more while improving his approach, particularly from the left side of the plate.
"Offensively, he's made similar progress," Crockett said. "Overall, he's in a good place after his first full season."
Swihart isn't the only first-round pick playing in the instructional league. Deven Marrero, Boston's top pick in last June's Draft, is there as well. The Arizona State shortstop played in 64 games with short-season Lowell during his professional debut, where he showed the advanced defensive skills at shortstop that were on display throughout his college career. There were concerns about Marrero's bat, however, after a subpar junior season offensively. The Red Sox were pleased with their No. 11 prospect's overall approach, and he's continuing to hone it in Florida.
"Marrero has had good at-bats and has played a good shortstop here," Crockett said. "His primary issue when he had mini-slumps was when he was trying to force the ball the other way rather than hitting it where it was pitched. He's pretty professional, shows the ability to get on base and can hit line drives to all parts of the field."
Ty Buttrey was a fourth-round pick in June, but he got first-round money to sign out of the North Carolina high school ranks. He's had one outing at the instructional league, striking out four in his two innings of work. After a brief but effective debut in the Gulf Coast League this summer, Buttrey is largely working on continuing to acclimate to the pro game, something Crockett feels has gone very well thus far.
"He hasn't skipped a beat coming into pro ball, getting used to our program, getting used to the routine of pitching every five days," Crockett said. "He's throwing the ball well, showing good velocity and the ability to use the curve to get swings and misses."
Crockett said all the pitchers at the instructional league level have done well, throwing strikes and pitching to contact, music to any pitching coordinator's ears. Third-round pick Austin Maddox has been particularly impressive. Maddox had success as the University of Florida's closer, but interestingly, Boston has had him working as a starter, both during his summer debut and now at the instructional league. Maddox's future role is to be determined, but the Red Sox will let him continue as a starting pitcher for the time being.
"We're having him throw every fifth day for a starter's routine," Crockett said. "We know he was a reliever in college, but we want to get him exposed to lengthier outings so he can develop all of his pitches. He was really impressive here. He commanded the zone in his first outing with a solid slider and a heavy fastball. He was locating to both sides."
It's not just draftees involved with the instructional league this fall. It's often a time where teams will bring international prospects over for a lower-key introduction to baseball in the United States. Outfielder Manuel Margot, 17, and catcher Alixon Suarez, 18, played in the Dominican Summer League and are getting the chance to see what it's like to play stateside this fall. Given the steep learning curve, they have been very impressive in the early going.
"They've handled the transition, where guys sometimes press," Crockett said. "Margot has a compact swing and plays the game hard. Suarez has some power, with longer levers. He has some work to do physically, but has shown no fear here, both behind the plate and in the box."