Catching prospects offer Sox uncommon depth

Catching prospects offer Sox uncommon depth
January 17, 2014, 6:00 pm
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CAMBRIDGE -- Late last year, the Red Sox were reluctant to give free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia a three-year guaranteed deal, in large part because the organization is flush with young catchers.   

At Pawtucket this season, the Red Sox will try to find playing time for three receivers -- Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez. And not too far behind that trio is Blake Swihart, a former No. 1 pick will be at Double A Portland.   

For the Sox, it's an embarrassment of riches at a key position.  

"I think we're lucky to have three guys, potentially four with Blake, at the upper levels, that could help us at the major league level,'' said Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett as the organization's rookie development program wrapped up at Harvard.   

"Obviously, Lavarnway was (in Boston) last year and is the most experienced of that group. I think the two other guys that saw time at Triple A last year -- Vazquez and Butler -- there wouldn't be a ton of hesitation to expose any of those guys (to the big leagues) if the timing was right and the situation was right.''   

This season, the Sox will try to find the right formula to get all three catchers at Pawtucket adequate playing time.   

"I don't know that there are a specific number of reps or games caught that we have to see for any particular player,'' said Crockett. "Certainly, we could be in a position where there's multiple catchers on the roster who need to play and we're going to do the best we can to maximize the reps for each guy.    

"Each of those three guys are at different points in their development - offensively and defensively. It's hard to put a hard number on it, but certainly on the defensive side of things, it's probably one of the more challenging transititions to the major leagues, just in terms of the amount of information that goes into prepration.    

"This camp in particular, and others that we've done in the past, are really important for everybody, but particularly the catchers, just to get as much exposure as possible.''    

Most evaluators believe Vazquez could catch at the big league level now, as he possesses a plus arm and good skills behind the plate. But last year, he made major strides as a hitter, with a .375 on-base percentage between Portland and Pawtucket.    

"I think I was more focused, watching the game and watching the opposing pitcher,'' said Vazquez, 23. "I concentrated more. Talking to (Double A hitting coach Rich Gedman) last year, he helped me out to be focused on the game more and looking for one spot to hit.''    

Pitching prospect Matt Barnes said throwing to Vazquez is "a treat.''    

"His defense is outstanding,'' said Barnes. "Anytime you've got a guy behind the plate who takes the burden off me trying to hold runners, it really makes my job a lot easier. I get to focus on the hitter a lot more, knowing that I have him behind the plate. There are very [few] people in baseball who can steal off him.''    

Then there's Swihart, who has a higher offensive ceiling, but also has shown enough improvement behind the plate to earn an award as Red Sox Minor League Defensive Catcher of the Year.    

''Blake really has continued to make a lot of progress, on both sides of the ball,'' said Crockett, "but particularly defensively. We recognized that with (naming him Red Sox minor league) Defensive Player of the Year. He's a tremendous athlete, someone who has gotten a lot better behind the plate. He's got plenty of arm strength and I think that athleticism has really started to translate behind the plate. He took more leadership this year, and the game-planning and relationship with pitchers is really something that he'll need to prioritize as someone who's kind of new to the position.    

''Offensively, the approach improved quite a bit last year, but will continue to be a focal point for him. He's someone who's a very good hitter and feels like he can hit a lot of different pitchers and as he moves up the level, he became more selective and more aggressive with pitches that he can handle a little bit more often.''    

Swihart didn't start catching until halfway through high school, but has shown great improvement.    

"I've learned a lot,'' he said, "but I still have a lot more to learn. It's been great. It's been a good experience. I love catching, I love being behind the plate.''    

He's earned an invitation to major league spring training, and can't wait for the experience.    

"It's an honor,'' he said. "I'm going to go in there and I'm going to learn. I'm going to talk to veteran guys, sit down and listen, just take as much as I can in and learn as much as I can. They always need catchers for bullpens in big league camp, so it's great for me to go in there and be able to catch all those guys up there -- just to get comfortable with them, and see what they throw and how their pitches move.''