The Red Sox may insist their white flag is tucked away, still gathering dust since 2012 -- perhaps in A.J. Pierzynski’s now-vacant locker -- but the signs are all around. Mookie Betts is up. Christian Vazquez is up. Space in the rotation could soon open up for both Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa. The rest of this season will be spent developing young prospects at the game’s highest level so that, even if they make a miraculous climb back from 9 1/2 games out of first place in the A.L. East, the core of the next great Red Sox team will have accumulated valuable big-league innings.
“We are where we are,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “If the standings were turned upside down, if our positioning was different, maybe that wouldn't be happening. But we are where we are, so we gotta find out about guys. We've gotta see what opportunities come our way. At the same time, we're trying to get better as quickly as we can in ways that make sense.”
Already, several young players have seen significant MLB action in 2014. At times they’ve flashed the skills that have had them earmarked as young organizational thoroughbreds. At times -- more often that not for some -- they’ve struggled badly. Luckily for the Red Sox, their system is deep with ready-made Major League talent. It's on the backs of those players that the oft-mentioned “bridge” will be built, and the construction is underway.
After hearing from members of the organization and players as well as MLB scouts, we look at six Red Sox up-and-comers who will help determine the team's direction for years to come. Here's one:
Where does he stand?
Before he was called up on July 9, Vazquez’s defensive wizardry behind the plate was well-established. A talented receiver and game-caller, Vazquez had legendary “pop” times (the time from when the catcher’s mitt “pops” to when the infielder's mitt "pops" while covering second during a steal attempt) and an arm that one scout said was “on the scouting scale of 20-80, 80 being the best . . . like a 100. It’s off the scale.”
Yet in three games with the big-league club, it’s been his offense that has been on display. After going 0-for-3 in his debut, he was 5-for-8 with three doubles and five RBI in two wins over the Astros before the All-Star break.
“We think Vazquez has gotten to the point where he can help us certainly defensively,” general manager Ben Cherington said on the day Vazquez arrived in Boston. “His at-bats over the last six weeks or so have been more consistent and showed a good approach, so we think he can help us behind the plate . . . [this is] also a bit of investment in him and an opportunity for us to find out a little bit more about him as we start looking forward.”
Where do the Red Sox hope he’ll be, eventually?
As he navigates through the rest of his first big-league season, Vazquez won’t be expected to go much beyond the skill set he’s shown consistently throughout the minor leagues. He’s a very good defensive catcher, and that’s what the Red Sox are looking for.
“First, just take care of the defensive part of the game,” Cherington said. “The big leagues, it's the biggest change for any position player, the defensive responsibilities at that position . . . It's probably more difficult at catcher than any other position as far as a young guy or any guy is asked to do. Our staff will do a good job of helping him along with that. Just take care of the defensive responsibilities first and let the offense evolve. He's a very talented, confident defensive player, so we're not concerned about his ability to come up and catch. He'll have an opportunity to learn a lot catching veteran pitchers and what goes into game-planning and all that kind of thing, and we'll help him as much as we can with that.”
In some ways, Vazquez may be the easiest of Boston’s top prospects to project, said one scout.
“Vazquez is kind of what he is right now,” he said. “That’s what he’s gonna be. He’s not gonna hit for power. He’s not gonna get much stronger. He’s physically where he’s at, which is gonna be good. He’s a big-leaguer.
“He’s a stocky and strong kid, and there’s some power in there. If he hits .240 with 15 home runs or 12 home runs, man, you’d take that. That’s an everyday catcher now. He can do what Dioner Navarro can do, and [Navarro's] been catching  years in the big leagues. I don’t know if [Vazquez will] be the star of the group, but he’s one of the guys that I think you’d be happy to have on your team.”
What does he have to do to get there?
Keep on keepin’ on.
He’s already drawn praise from the Red Sox pitching staff and manager John Farrell for his ability to frame pitches -- something for which his predecessor Pierzynski was not known -- and steal calls behind the plate.
The Red Sox intimated that Vazquez and David Ross would evenly split the catching duties for now. But if the rookie can continue to show off his skills as an elite defensive catcher, he may quickly find himself with the lead job. Any offense he provides would be gravy.
Trade him or keep him?
They wouldn’t want to do it now, or maybe even next year. But eventually, Vazquez could provide the Red Sox very good value in a deal if they’d be willing to include him.
He’s still only 23 years old, he plays a premium position, and, barring injury, he’ll likely be playing it at an elite level over the next several years. One scout compared his defensive abilities to 13-time Gold Glove winner and fellow Puerto Rican catcher Ivan Rodriguez. If there’s a front office out there that feels the same way, the Red Sox could be presented with an enticing offer down the road.
Perhaps more importantly, the Red Sox may be able to afford dealing Vazquez thanks to their organizational depth at the position.
Switch-hitting Sea Dogs backstop Blake Swihart has become the team's top positional prospect and one of the best catchers at the Double-A level, both offensively and defensively. He’s an elite athlete who has shown this season he can hit for power. He, like Vazquez, also has a tremendous throwing arm, catching 54 percent of would-be base stealers this season.
While Vazquez is a big-leaguer and Swihart is still two promotions away, it’s Swihart whose offensive ceiling is higher.
Swihart is a good enough athlete that some have speculated he could move to the outfield, thereby creating space for both he and Vazquez to co-exist as starters on a major-league roster, but Crockett said there have been no discussions within the organization about moving Swihart's position on the diamond.
In order to get the most value out of both players, the best option may be to one day move Vazquez.