When the Red Sox decided this offseason not to re-sign catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and instead sign veteran A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal, it seemed clear that they believed the future behind the plate was in the farm system.
The Red Sox held their annual Rookie Program this week in Boston, and two of their highest-regarded catching prospects, Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, were in attendance. There has been speculation that at least one of them could be in the majors as soon as the upcoming season.
“I don’t know that there is a specific number of reps or a specific number of games caught that we have to see from a particular player," Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said Friday. “Certainly we can be in a position that we have multiple catchers on the [minor league] roster that need to play and we’re going to do the best we can to maximize the repetitions for each guy.
“This camp in particular, and others than we have done in the past, are really important for everybody, but in particular the catchers, just to get as much exposure as possible to major league staff in the way of thinking about things, the information that goes into the advanced reports, is something that they just need to get more familiar with.”
Swihart, who was taken by the Red Sox with the 26th overall pick in the 2011 draft, has played three seasons in the system. He spent all of 2013 with High A Salem, where he hit .298 with 29 doubles, 7 triples, 2 home runs, and 42 RBIs in 103 games.
The 21-year-old was named a Carolina League midseason All-Star, and in the fall was named the Red Sox minor league defensive player of the year. Not bad for a player who didn’t start catching until his junior year of high school.
“I’ve learned a lot, I still have a lot more to learn,” Swihart said. “It’s been great, a good experience. I love catching, I love being in every play, so it’s coming along really good.”
“Blake has really continued to make a lot of progress, on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively,” Crockett said. “He is a tremendous athlete, someone who’s gotten a lot better behind the plate. He’s got plenty of arm strength. I think that athleticism is really starting to translate behind the plate.”
“I feel like everything I still need to work on, especially catching -- I’m still new to catching,” Swihart said. “You’re always learning when you’re catching. You might find a new pitcher that you’re catching that day, you need to get comfortable with him, learn his pitches, learn his pitches that he likes to throw in certain counts, so I've just got to get better at game calling, all of that.”
Swihart recently learned that he had been invited to major league spring training, an opportunity he is very excited about.
“It’s an honor," he said. "I’m going to go in there, I’m going to learn. I’m going to talk to veteran guys. I’m going to sit down and listen, just take as much as I can in and just learn as much as I can.
"Work never finishes. I've just got to keep working and keep learning.”
Vazquez, on the other hand, is a very experienced catcher and has been named by Baseball America as the best defensive catcher in the Red Sox system each of the past three years. The 23-year-old was MVP of the Portland Sea Dogs in 2013 after leading the team with a .289 average and was the starting catcher for the Eastern League All-Star team.
He was promoted to Triple A at the end of 2013, and between Portland and Pawtucket he had career bests in batting average (.287) and on-base percentage (.375).
“I was more focused, patient,” Vazquez said. “I watched the game, watched the opponents' pitcher. I was more concentrated in the batter’s box. Talking to [former Pawtucket manager] Gary [DiSarcina], he helped me a lot to be focused in the game more and looking for one spot to hit.”
Vazquez, said Crockett, is "definitely very close. I think we’re very lucky to be in a position where we have three guys -- and potentially four with Blake -- at the upper levels that they could help us at the major league level.
"There wouldn’t be a ton of hesitation to expose any of those guys if the timing was right and the situation was right.”
“It’s great [to be in Triple A]," said Vazquez. "It's fun to see more veterans guys to help me get better. It’s the same game, but different atmosphere.
“We have more reports on the opposing team. That helped me a lot to know the hitter, what count they hack [in], it’s just helped me in my game.”
With Pierzynski and David Ross both set to be free agents after the 2014 season, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for the Red Sox to see whether one of these young prospects could be their backstop in 2015. Swihart and Vazquez, though, are only thinking about what they can control.
“I let everybody else worry about that, the front office guys,” Swihart said. “I just go out and play my game and do what I can do.”