Ready for his closeup: Why Red Sox felt time was right for Christian Vazquez

July 09, 2014 - 7:52 pm

The Red Sox have relied heavily on youth all year long, and with the Sox sinking further down in the standings during the homestand, they made a move on Wednesday that signaled that they aren't backing off of a commitment to and investment in their prospects. Goodbye, veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who was designated for assignment on Wednesday. Hello, 23-year-old Christian Vazquez, promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket and inserted into the lineup as the starting catcher. Vazquez was one of five rookies on the field for the Red Sox on Wednesday, making his debut against the White Sox, catching Rubby De La Rosa and batting ninth. He was all smiles before the game. "I'm very happy to be here," Vazquez said. "It's my dream to be here and play in the big leagues." And he, like every other member of the Red Sox, was all smiles postgame as well, after the Red Sox walked off with a 5-4, come-from-behind victory. "There was a lot of emotion," Vazquez said. "It was a good win for us and I'm excited." Vazquez had his work cut out for him in his first game in the majors, facing All-Star candidate Chris Sale and catching five pitchers on the evening. He went 0-for-3 at the plate and was pinch-hit for in the ninth, but he looked solid defensively. While he had to work with four relievers, he began the game in something of a comfort zone, catching De La Rosa, his former Triple-A battery mate. "[Catching De La Rosa] helped me a lot," said Vazquez after his debut. "I've got a lot of experience with him and I'm very confident with him." Vazquez may not necessarily be the offensive spark that will turn the lineup around, but he's described as a game-changer behind the plate. "I think he's a great young prospect," catcher David Ross said prior to Wednesday's game. "I love his attitude and he's got a cannon for an arm. He's not just about hitting or catching, he's about both. I think he's going to be a good bright spot for us." The emphasis is on the defensive and game-calling abilities when talking about Vazquez, and the Red Sox got a glimpse of those skills while he was in major league camp during spring training this season. He made a favorable impression both then and during the year with his ability to read the swings of hitters and to call games while showing across-the-board development of his defensive skills. But Vazquez has shown progress on the offensive side of the ball as well. In 66 games in Triple-A, the catcher was batting .279/.336/.385 with 17 doubles and three home runs. He hit .289 with a .376 OBP with Portland last season. While making a major league debut can be an overwhelming experience for any player, as a catcher, Vazquez faces some challenges that are unique to his position. He will have to acquaint himself with the veterans on the Red Sox pitching staff -- a responsibility that the Red Sox defined as primary for him. "For any position player going from Triple-A to the big leagues, it's more difficult at catcher than probably any other position as far as what a young guy is asked to do," general manager Ben Cherington said. "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." While Vazquez is relatively unfamiliar with most of the veteran pitchers on the staff, he has some experience with them in spring training upon which to fall back. And he'll have plenty of help to smooth the adjustment from the minors to the majors, particularly in the form of Ross. "I'm excited to help in any way I can," Ross said. "I talked to him, we exchanged cell phone numbers, we'll ride to the park together, I'll teach him the little things I had to learn the hard way and try to give him all the information that I can to help him succeed. I think he's a guy that's about winning first, and we're going to be better off for having him." With the departure of Pierzynski, Ross will assume a slightly increased workload. He'll continue to catch Jon Lester's starts and likely will receive three starts in a seven-game stretch while Vazquez will start the other four. Having a catcher with 13 years of big league experience in Ross to guide Vazquez through the transition is an invaluable resource for the Red Sox, and having an experienced pitching staff also is a big advantage. "[Ross], along with the staff and pitchers, will play a pivotal role in this," Farrell said. "Getting to know the individual pitchers, understanding our game plans and trying to implement, that's where we've got to have communication in between innings with him, maybe more frequently than with a veteran catcher." "I think Christian can learn from those guys," Ross said. "John Lackey kind of calls his own game, so he's going to, in essence, help Christian through the game. I think a veteran staff is better than a young staff because they'll be able to execute and he'll get to see how scouting reports play out." But even though Vazquez is inexperienced when it comes to working with Red Sox pitchers, he has plenty of tools to manage the staff and succeed at the major league level. "The initial butterflies, I think, would be there, but with the skill set that he has, the way he's able to slow down and impact the game from behind the plate, he's not afraid to take risks," PawSox manager Kevin Boles said recently. "He doesn't really have fear of whatever stage that he's on, he's going to rise to that stage."