By Johnny Carey, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) --- On April 15 -- only six games into the regular season -- the Red Sox sent starting catcher Blake Swihart down to Triple-A.
It's hard to argue against the move in hindsight, considering Christian Vazquez has done a very nice job behind the plate in Swihart's wake. Vazquez has come as advertised, playing extremely well defensively, and handling the pitching staff with ease.
Still, there was a reason that Swihart was the Opening Day starter -- and it wasn't just that Vazquez was hurt. It was also that Swihart can flat-out hit.
Over the six games before he was sent down, Swihart was hitting .278 with a .391 OBP. Of course, that's an extremely small sample size, but it wasn't just over a six-game stretch that Swihart swung the bat well. Swihart hit .303 with an .805 slugging percentage in the second half of the 2015 season, as a rookie.
That was good for the third-highest batting average among all major league catchers during the time period.
But the Red Sox made it clear in their demotion of Swihart that they valued a defensive catcher without much offensive upside over a significantly weaker defensive catcher with a ton of offensive upside. Possessing two catchers with huge, yet polar opposite upsides, is a great problem for the Red Sox to have -- most teams would be enamored with either catcher. Still, the team could do a better job of balancing the two.
The value of Vazquez behind the plate has been more than enough to make up for a mediocre bat. However, there are two players on the Red Sox roster whose struggles at the plate have become concerning -- Brock Holt and Ryan Hanigan. Coincidentally, both of those players are in roles that could be upgraded by Swihart.
Brock Holt is struggling in a major way as the starting left fielder against right-handed pitching. Since starting the season 6-for-12, Holt is hitting at a .132 clip over 32 games. Holt has only four extra-base hits over that time period, and quite frankly, has looked lost at the plate. The production around Holt in the lineup has been so overwhelming that it's been easy to ignore his struggles, but in order for the team to continue to progress, it's important to improve upon pieces that aren't producing. Holt is still an extremely valuable piece to the roster, but perhaps he would benefit from returning to the role of super-utility man where he's thrived over the past two seasons.
One of the team's explanations for Swihart's demotion to Pawtucket was the need to get acclimated to left field -- just in case he could be of use in Boston. By all accounts, he's fit in smoothly as a left fielder in Pawtucket, and considering Holt's major struggles at the moment, there appears to be use for Swihart in left field right now. He could take some at-bats for the struggling Holt in left, while Holt could regain confidence in his utility man position.
As far as other options in left field go, Chris Young is doing exactly what the Red Sox signed him to do - he's mashing left-handed pitching. Still, the fact remains that (Wednesday's home run off Ian Kennedy notwithstanding) he can't hit right-handers.
Blake Swihart can.
In his brief major league career, Swihart has hit .286 with a .734 OPS against righties, with four of his five career homers coming against righties. Swapping out some of the ice-cold Holt's at-bat's with those kind of numbers, alongside Young's domination of lefties would create a more successful platoon.
Only a week ago, Red Sox manager John Farrell declared that Swihart wasn't quite yet ready to be called up, citing a need for Swihart to figure out how to balance preparation in left field with his bat.
"He's got to keep playing," Farrell said. "He's got to keep swinging the bat too. He's taking on a new position so that's going to take added concentration on the defensive side. I know he swung the bat a little bit better last night so that's still got to come from him."
Since that declaration, Swihart has done just that. In his last five games, Swihart is batting .417, but again, that shouldn't be surprising, considering how good of a hitter he proved to be in the major leagues last season.
Ryan Hanigan, on the other hand, has not been a good hitter in the major leagues over the past year-plus. This season, he's hitting .185 with a .254 OBP and a .495 OPS, which is just not good enough.
The argument for Hanigan comes largely in his handling of knuckleballer Steven Wright and the pitching staff. Yes, he has been an above-average defensive catcher throughout his entire career, and is said to be a good clubhouse presence. Even so, it's hard to justify giving consistent at-bats to a guy with the second-worst average among catchers (minimum 50 plate appearances) this season.
Especially not when you have a 24-year-old with the ability to upgrade the lineup.
Josh Rutledge and Marco Hernandez each have minor league options remaining, so one could be swapped out for Swihart, who would be a more trustworthy option than either of the two at this point. Rutledge has done a good job as a utility man, and only has one option remaining on his contract, so it would make the most sense to let Hernandez continue to develop in the minor leagues. He would most likely benefit more there anyways, since he won't find consistent at-bats in Boston right now.
The Red Sox are in a great spot right now, but Swihart's promotion presents an opportunity to upgrade a lineup that is already on fire. Six of the team's nine everyday starters have an average of .299 or higher. However, two of the other three situational positions (left field platoon and/or backup catcher) could be upgraded by Swihart's bat.
That possibility is just too enticing to ignore.
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