Nine innings: Swihart vs. Vazquez is a good problem to have, but the answer is obvious

Red Sox workouts are underway in Fort Myers

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(Left to right) Christian Vazquez, Ryan Hanigan, and Blake Swihart are your Red Sox catchers.

COMMENTARY

Playing nine innings while hoping that the Red Sox someday bring back the bullpen cart but never allow Mookie Betts to drive it

1. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but based on my scattered social-media interactions I get the sense that a consensus of Red Sox fans is hoping that Christian Vazquez emerges as the primary catcher this season.

I understand why he’d be popular – watching him catch and throw is an aesthetic delight. Watching a catcher gun down an accomplished base-stealer is probably one of the most enjoyable single plays in baseball, right there with, I don’t know, watching a double turn into a triple, a lasered throw from right field to nail a runner at the plate, or a bang-bang double play at first base that gets the pitcher out of a serious jam. Vazquez – at least before his Tommy John surgery – had as strong an arm as any Red Sox catcher I have ever seen, save for maybe Tony Pena.

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But in a way that leads to my hesitance to anoint him as the guy: Not many remember Pena fondly around here because he couldn’t hit a lick. Can Vazquez hit? Maybe, maybe not. It takes time for many catchers — the great Yadier Molina never had an OPS higher than .684 in his first three seasons. Vazquez has a .617 OPS in 201 plate appearances in the majors, and a .715 OPS in 274 PAs in Triple A.

He might well be an honorary Molina – it’s just that we shouldn’t assume that the one he’ll be most similar to is Yadier. And nobody pines for the second coming of Jose Molina, you know?

Even though he also has to make more progress – especially defensively – I’m much more enthused about seeing what Blake Swihart can do this year. He slashed .303/.353/.452 in the second half last year, including .373/.439/.492 in August. He has a chance to be an impact bat in a lineup that has a lot of question marks at the bottom of the order. And he’s not as young as you think — he’ll be 24 in April.

I like both players a lot. But if I had to choose one for the next half-dozen years, it would be Swihart without a second thought.

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2. I suspect Swihart is overlooked in part because the Red Sox are so rich with young players who are already established – Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are the new Gold Dust Twins at 23 – or who are have not reached Fenway yet and thus have the irresistible mystery of promise and potential. And man, how cool is it that they have so many players in that latter category right now. The Red Sox have three of the premier hitting prospects in the minors right now in third baseman Rafael Devers, second baseman Yoan Moncada, and centerfielder Andrew Benintendi. Here’s how each of them ranked in the four top-100 (or in Baseball Prospectus’s case, 101) prospect lists I’ve checked out:

Devers: Keith Law/ESPN (7); MLB.com (17); Baseball America (18); Baseball Prospectus (35)

Moncada: Law/ESPN (17); MLB.com (7); Baseball America (3); Baseball Prospectus (17)

Benintendi: Law/ESPN (18), MLB.com (25), Baseball America (15), Baseball Prospectus (46).

Since you were told there would be no math, here’s how each prospect averages out if you add up their rankings and divide by four: Devers (19.25), Moncada (11), and Benintendi (26). Moncada is boosted by BA’s No. 3 ranking, while Benintendi takes a hit from BP putting him at No. 46. It should also be noted that 17-year-old righthander Anderson Espinoza made all four lists, peaking at BA’s No. 19, while BP had him at a low of No. 73, with this logical reminder that he’s a long way away: His slight build and the natural attrition rate of young pitchers are reasons enough to keep expectations in check, kind of like your junior prom date did when you were the kid’s age.

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3. Consider all of this prospect chatter a reminder that while Ben Cherington lost his job in August, his legacy with the Red Sox remains incomplete. He had one stunning success (the acquisition of a flock of mid-level free agents who provided the musculature of the 2013 World Series champs) and followed two years later with a string of what for now look like colossal failures (committing $265.5 million to Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Rick Porcello). Dave Dombrowski should send him a thank-you note (or something more expensive) for leaving behind a farm system in superb shape and with a variety of multi-skilled prospects.

4. It should be noted that while our fears were allayed in regard to the possibility of Dombrowski coming in here and trading every talented kid on the Greenville roster in order to bolster the big-league club, he did trade away a couple of kids who are getting some respect from the prospect gurus. Outfielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra appeared on all four of the aforementioned lists. Margot earned a high ranking of No. 14 (Baseball Prospectus, which noted the current value of his defensive prowess), while his lowest was 56 (Baseball America). Guerra’s high was No. 34 (Law/ESPN) and his low No. 58 (MLB.com).

5. I have no problem with Dombrowski trading Margot and Guerra (and two other kids) to get Craig Kimbrel. I wasn’t thrilled with the deal when I first heard about it, but the initial feeling that Dombrowski gave up too much was fleeting. It helped that he ended up retaining the organization’s best prospects as the winter passed—remember, we didn’t know if this was the beginning of a bloodletting of the farm system or not, and he did arrive with the reputation of being and eager dealer of top prospects. But as the Celtics are learning with their stash of draft picks, there’s no room for everyone; trades from quality depth have to happen. The Red Sox got back an elite reliever, something they desperately needed, without damaging their organizational depth chart. Those are the kind of trades you should always make.

6. In 25 games from Aug. 9-Sept. 7 last season, Jackie Bradley Jr. had 90 plate appearances and 83 at-bats. And in those 90 plate appearances and 83 at-bats, he turned into peak-beast Barry Bonds, hitting 7 homers, 13 doubles, 4 triples, driving in 32 runs, and slashing .446/.489/.952. In 25 games from Sept. 8-Oct. 4 – the last game of the season – he had 94 plate appearances and 80 at-bats. And in those 94 plate appearances and 80 at-bats, he turned into what Barry Bonds would probably be now, at age 51 and shrunken to the size he was as a young Pirate, hitting two homers and four doubles, striking out 27 times, and slashing .138/.247/.263.

7. If that doesn’t confirm yet again that we have no idea what to expect out of Bradley this season, nothing will. It is interesting to see what certain projections systems see in store for such an unpredictable player – especially since two of the systems I follow are nearly identical in their forecast. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections at FanGraphs have Bradley at 12 homers, 47 extra-base hits, a .247/.319/.405 slash line and a comparison to the immortal Bob Skube. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA model offers up an almost exact slash line to ZiPS — .247/.320/.405 – with 13 homers and 44 extra-base hits. If he ends up in the range of those projections, he’s going to be a valuable player because of his otherworldly defense. And I would take his season-ending 2015 line –.249/.335/.498 , with a homer every 25.5 plate appearances — expanded over a full season without a second thought.

8. Still believe the Red Sox require a more dependable lefty in the bullpen than holdovers Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross Jr. Anyone know what Mike Myers is up to these days? Or maybe Tony Fossas? Actually, there is a former Red Sox bullpen lefty still available in free agency, and one who may be drawing their interest: Franklin Morales. Reaction: Meh, more of the same, unless you believe he brings some strange intangible magic after having pitched for two World Series champs in the past three seasons. (No one in their right mind believes that.) Morales is a different pitcher than he was three years ago – his walk rate and K-rate dropped significantly last year – but he was as terrible in the postseason for the champion Royals (108.00 ERA in the World Series) as he was for the ’13 Red Sox, when he was the only player on the postseason roster who didn’t submit a meaningful contribution along the way.

9. Always read with interest Nick Cafardo’s annual ranking of the 30 managers in The Boston Globe. It’s pretty much an impossible – and certainly a subjective – task. Each managerial job is so different – consider what Don Mattingly had to do in Los Angeles compared to the task at hand in Miami. There are different cultures, attitudes, salaries, and expectations, and much of it is beyond a manager’s control. There’s so much we can’t quantify – I mean, is Mike Matheny, who seems to be a hunch-based tactically flawed manager with a deeply talented roster, any better than a data-driven people-person such as Houston’s A.J. Hinch? I’m not sure we know enough to claim expertise, though will say this: It should be a no-brainer that Bruce Bochy – who has guided his Giants teams to three championships in five years – should be No. 1. He’s got an even-year dynasty going on there.

Notable Red Sox rookie performances

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