Another Schwarber? Boston's Hickey powering up in AFL

October 12th, 2023

After the Red Sox acquired Kyle Schwarber at the 2021 Trade Deadline, he slammed seven homers in 41 regular-season games and went deep three times in the playoffs during a run to the American League Championship Series. Since they let him depart as a free agent, he has homered 93 times in the last two seasons and provided plenty of playoff heroics for the Phillies.

While Boston may miss Schwarber, it does have a prospect who has a similar offensive profile and faced the same questions as to whether he could make it as a catcher while coming up through the Minors. Nathan Hickey, No. 15 on Boston's Top 30 Prospects list, batted .265/.362/.496 with 19 homers in 98 games this season, mostly in Double-A. He did make strides with his receiving but surrendered 129 steals in 139 attempts in 75 games behind the plate.

Hickey currently is playing in the Arizona Fall League with the idea of continuing to do what has worked at the plate while trying to hone his skills behind it.

“Offensively, I just feel like I've never really worried about that,” Hickey said. “That's kind of just been honestly like the M.O., is that I'll be able to hit but defense has just been the one thing I've been focusing on. So I'm going to come here and just try to be the best defensive catcher that I can be.”

Hickey’s signature tool is his huge raw power. He packs plenty of strength in his 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame, has a quick left-handed swing and looks to launch balls in the air. He led a loaded Florida lineup in OPS in each of his two college seasons, earning him an over-slot $1 million bonus as a draft eligible sophomore in the fifth round in 2021.

Hickey’s approach does lead to strikeouts, though he also draws a healthy amount of walks. That has been true in the early going with the Glendale Desert Dogs, as he has gone 1-for-12 with seven whiffs and five free passes in his first four games.

Schwarber was committed to making it as a catcher before a knee injury in the big leagues with the Cubs pushed him to left field and DH. Hickey has similar drive, though remaining a backstop won’t be easy.

Hickey caught just 50 games in two college seasons, and he has cleaned up his receiving and blocking some since signing. Both of those areas need further refinement, but the bigger issue is his throwing. He has average arm strength but struggles with his transfer and his accuracy, which has resulted in him erasing just 10 percent of the basestealers who have tested him in pro ball.

He detailed his defensive game plan for the AFL, where he allowed five steals in six tries and gave up one passed ball in his first two starts behind the plate.

“I’m more just staying consistent with the moves that I make receiving wise,” Hickey said. “The blocking is there, or was there this past year, just kind of just sticking with that. And then while I was down in Fort Myers [at Boston’s training base] before I got here, we did a lot of transfer and throwing stuff. So I'm feeling pretty good about being here right now.”

Red Sox hitters in the Fall League

Tyler McDonough, OF/SS/2B: Drafted in the third round out of North Carolina State in 2021, McDonough started at all three outfield spots plus shortstop, second base and third base this season. A switch-hitter with solid speed, he batted .250/.326/.370 with five homers and 24 steals in 97 Double-A games. 

Corey Rosier, OF: Acquired from the Padres as part of the Eric Hosmer trade in August 2022, Rosier stands out most with well-above-average speed that enables him to steal bases and cover ground in center field. He hit .285/.351/.431 with seven homers and 49 swipes in 116 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

Red Sox pitchers in the Fall League

Bryan Mata, RHP (No. 23): Signed for $25,000 out of Venezuela in 2016, Mata blossomed into Boston’s best pitching prospect but has struggled since Tommy John surgery in 2021. He posted a 6.33 ERA with 28 strikeouts and 30 walks in 27 Triple-A innings, still showing a mid-90s fastball but battling his secondary stuff while dealing with shoulder inflammation.

Felix Cepeda, RHP: Cepeda is coming off the best season of his pro career, recording a 2.38 ERA with six saves, a .194 opponent average and 60 strikeouts in 53 innings between Single-A and High-A. Signed for $40,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, he has a mid-90s fastball and a decent slider.

Wyatt Olds, RHP: A 2021 seventh-round pick from Oklahoma, Olds got tagged for an 8.47 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 47 walks in 45 2/3 Double-A innings. His mid-80s slider is his best pitch and he sets it up with a 92-94 mph fastball.

Zach Penrod, RHP: After the Red Sox signed Penrod out of the Pioneer League, an independent MLB Partner League, in August, he compiled a 2.18 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings in High-A. His fastball sat at 93-95 mph in his first AFL start, his slider ranged from 87-89 mph and his diving mid-80s changeup notched three strikeouts.

Christopher Troye, RHP: A reliever with a 93-96 mph fastball and an upper-80s slider/cutter, Troye was a 12th rounder out of UC Santa Barbara in 2021. He logged a 3.10 ERA with a .169 opponent average and 87 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A.