Sandy Leon, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday, Christian Vazquez, and Blake Swihart all saw time at catcher with the Red Sox during the 2016 season. We now know at least one of those players, and likely two, will not be back with the team next year. Here is a look at the updated catching situation:
Hanigan was set to make $3.75M in the final year of his contract if the Red Sox picked up his 2017 option. Instead, the team declined it and opted for the $800K buyout.
As a result, Hanigan will become a free agent at 36 years old. The veteran backstop battled injuries throughout his two years in Boston, which certainly didn’t help him get much going with his bat. He finished 2016 with a .171 average and one homer in 105 at-bats. His lone dinger was made into a memorable highlight by Robbie Ross Jr., and is worth watching again as a goodbye tribute:
Despite the lack of offense, Hanigan’s value to the team was seen in how starters performed when he was catching. As of mid-September, Boston pitchers had a 3.41 ERA for the year with Hanigan behind the dish. The team also went 21-9 in games that he started.
While his veteran presence and instincts had their merits, Hanigan was deemed expendable by Boston, especially with their young talent.
At the other end of the spectrum is Leon, who had a breakout year that shocked Red Sox Nation and the baseball world alike. It’s funny because he was not even on the team to begin the year. Once he did get called up in early June, he never looked back.
For most of the season Leon batted above .350, and his final average posted as .310 with a .845 OPS, which shattered the marks from his first three years.
Unfortunately, Leon fell off pretty badly during the final month of play. In September he hit .213 without any homers. He also struggled mightily with inside breaking balls that led to some ugly postseason at-bats.
At age 27, Leon enters his first year of arbitration eligibility in 2017. He definitely showcased his talent well throughout the year to be considered the favored starter for 2017, but it will be interesting to see how he follows up his stellar season. Offensive struggles will open the door for the younger guns to take over.
With premier defensive skills, Vazquez has a lot of upside if he can develop more offensive consistency. No one is asking him to hit .300, but .220 won’t cut it. I think that if he lives in the .250-.260 range with a little bit of power, the Red Sox will surely take it.
Vazquez was not able to do that in 2016, and got sent down after two and a half months with the big league club. He played regularly in Pawtucket for July and August, and managed to bat .270. Hopefully he is able to translate some of that offense to Boston for next season.
The Puerto Rico native is still just 26 years old and under team control through 2017. Given that the Red Sox included Vazquez on the postseason roster as the second catcher behind Leon, they clearly have confidence in him. I think this is a big year for him to show that he can hit MLB pitching and be a potential long-term solution at catcher.
The other major piece of the puzzle is Swihart, who had his 2016 season cut short by an ankle injury that he suffered while playing left field. The 24-year-old is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch, mainly due to his superior athleticism.
So is he a catcher or a left fielder?
Maybe both, but the Red Sox are best suited to give him another opportunity as a catcher. With Andrew Benintendi looking like a long-term outfielder, there is a crowd at that position, unless of course Boston decides to sell high on Jackie Bradley Jr. That would allow Benintendi to move to centerfield, his natural position, and Swihart could slot into left.
Assuming that doesn’t happen, Swihart should catch. His offensive ability is certainly better than that of Vazquez. In 84 games in 2015, Swihart hit .274 with 17 doubles, five homers, and 47 runs scored. In 2016 he only got into 19 games, but was able to notch three triples. His speed is a unique asset for a catcher.
As for Swihart’s catching abilities, they could use improvement. His game-calling and pitch-framing skills have both been criticized. Some of that can be expected to progress with more experience and familiarity with the pitching staff, but Vazquez and Leon may have the edge on natural catching talent.
If Swihart is able to step up his play at the catcher position, he really has a chance to separate himself from Vazquez with superior offense.
The last catcher currently on the roster is Holaday, but it doesn’t seem like that will last long. At 28, he enters his first year of arbitration eligibility, and Boston is not expected to offer him a contract.
The Red Sox picked up Holaday in early August and he never made much of an impression. He batted .212 (7-for-33) in 14 games during his stint. His primary purpose was to fill in as a backup catcher with Hanigan on the DL. Holaday fulfilled his duties and now will likely become a free agent.
In summary, Boston has three solid options at catcher, each with their own intriguing skillsets. Spring Training will surely be an interesting time as Leon, Vazquez, and Swihart battle for a spot with the big league club.
Leon may hold the advantage as the incumbent starter, but don't count out the Red Sox youth.
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