Red Sox minor league year in review: Catchers

September 24, 2013 - 12:17 pm
As the major league season wraps up, will also wrap up its minor league coverage of the 2013 campaign by looking at the depth of prospects at the different position groupings in the farm system. Today: Catchers. Overview: Overall, the minor league catching landscape is bleak. That is not the case, however, in the Red Sox system, where there are four players who will open next year in Double-A or above who either have big league futures or who have already played at the game's highest level. Though it seemed reasonable to expect that the Sox might trade a catcher once they signed David Ross last offseason, the elected not to do so, resulting in an area where the Sox run deep. Interestingly, however, there is no player who is under team control for 2014 who seems like an ideal candidate to assume starting/primary catching duties should Jarrod Saltalamacchia leave as a free agent. The team does not seem ready to entrust Ryan Lavarnway with primary catching duties (Saltalamacchia's role, in fact, grew when Lavarnway was called up to fill in for Ross when he landed on the DL), while Ross is likely to remain a defense-first backup with pop. The fact that Dan Butler did not receive a September call-up underscores the view that he's a depth option rather than a starter-in-waiting, while Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart have starting catcher potential but won't be ready for the big leagues in 2014. In other words, there's a strong chance that even though the Sox are one of the only organizations that can boast multiple catching prospects who project to be above-average everyday options at their positions, the team will want to prioritize bringing back Saltalamacchia (who came into his own as the leader of the pitching staff while also producing his best, most consistent offensive season) or will have to dip into free agent waters to find a starter.   Ryan Lavarnway (age 25 season in 2013) Majors: 23 games, .311/.342/.446, 1 HR, 2 walks, 17 strikeouts, 19 percent caught stealing Triple-A: 50 games, .250/.346/.350, 3 HR, 25 walks, 25 strikeouts, 40 percent caught stealing Big league ETA: Already there. On the 40-man roster. One option left. Notes: Lavarnway continued to exhibit excellent plate discipline in Triple-A, though that skill didn't translate perfectly in his sporadic big league duty (witness the two walks and 17 strikeouts, and the disappearance of his power remains a puzzle to evaluators both inside and outside the Red Sox organization. He's made considerable defensive strides during his pro career, to the point where a team might be comfortable with featuring him behind the plate if he were still a 30-homer threat. In the absence of power, however, his fit is less clear, a notion underscored by the fact that he's gotten minimal playing time since Ross' activation. For now, members of the Sox rotation still appear more comfortable working with Saltalamacchia and Ross. Pitch selection with Lavarnway behind the plate often requires more negotiation, which takes the form of shaking to different pitches or mound visits. Still, while some of Lavarnway's limitations have been easier to spot in part time duty, the fact is that a) he's in the big leagues and b) he's shown the ability to have a solid offensive approach at that level despite sporadic playing time. And, given that he does have a 30-homer season under his belt, and that he's made improvements in his career behind the plate, there's meaningful upside. In other words, he's at a stage in his career where a team might well try to buy low. Dan Butler (26) Triple-A: 84 games, .262/.350/.479, 14 HR, 34 walks, 59 strikeouts, 30 percent caught stealing Big league ETA: Depth option in 2014. On the 40-man roster. Two options left. Notes: Butler turned scouting heads this summer, once he assumed an everyday role in Pawtucket after Lavarnway's promotion to the big leagues to fill in for Ross. He showed a good offensive approach with the ability to get on base and hit for some power while assuming a leadership role with the PawSox pitching staff. Scouts of other organizations feel he is a big league-ready option, with evaluators from multiple organizations suggesting that Butler was more impressive than one or more catchers on their big league team. It's a fairly remarkable emergence for a player who was undrafted following his relegation to backup status at the University of Arizona. He will be a big leaguer; the question is where and how and whether it can or will be with the Red Sox. With Vazquez now having advanced to Triple-A, the Sox may need to clear some inventory at catcher in order to afford the necessary playing opportunities to all of their upper levels catchers. Unless Lavarnway claims a role as a regular in the big leagues, complementing Ross, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the team keeps Ross, Lavarnway, Butler and Vazquez -- all of whom belong in Triple-A or above. In other words, the very top tier of the Sox' organization is somewhat overcrowded with catching, with a trade seeming necessary to prevent the team's current top catching prospects from getting caught in a bottleneck. Christian Vazquez (22) Triple-A: 1 game, 0-for-3, walk, 0-for-2 caught stealing Double-A: 96 games, .289/.376/.395, 5 HR, 47 walks, 44 strikeouts, 47 percent caught stealing Big league ETA: Late-2014 or early 2015. On the 40-man roster. Two options left. Notes: Vazquez is viewed as a potential Gold Glove defender who leaves scouts shaking their heads at the sight of his home-to-second pop times of less than 1.8 seconds. His offensive approach this year blossomed. Even though he showed minimal power, his ability to get on base and to provide steady, quality at-bats led to a view of Vazquez as a catcher with the ability to emerge as an everyday big league catcher. He receives raves from pitchers about his ability to control the game behind the plate, and his ability to shut down opposing running games borders on absurd. He's also surprisingly young, a reflection of the fact that he was drafted as a 17-year-old out of high school in Puerto Rico. Matt Spring (28) Double-A: 52 games, .222/.268/.449, 10 HR, 10 walks, 64 strikeouts, 11 percent caught stealing Notes: Spring was one of the most enjoyable stories in the Sox system early in the year, when he delivered surprising power en route to an Eastern League All-Star berth. But his numbers returned to earth after a hot start. Spring is a strong organizational option, someone trusted to handle a pitching staff and work with up-and-coming catching prospects, but not an impediment to their advancement. Blake Swihart (21) High-A: 103 games, .298/.366/.428, 2 HR, 41 walks, 63 strikeouts, 42 percent caught stealing Big league ETA: Late-2015 or 2016. Not yet on 40-man roster. Notes: The 2011 first-rounder emerged this year as what the Sox thought he was when they spent $2.5 million to sign him away from a University of Texas scholarship: A tremendous athlete with an ability to impact the ball from both sides of the plate while delivering both leadership and the potential for excellent defense behind-the-plate. He caught over 100 games in the regular season, then remained behind the plate as Salem won all five of its playoff games en route to a Carolina League title, making considerable strides defensively for a player who had limited exposure to the game's most difficult position as a high schooler. "I feel like I'€™ve progressed a lot," Swihart said on Saturday at Fenway, where he was recognized as the organization's Defensive Player of the Year. "I see the hitters' swings now. I know what the pitchers want to throw. We throw down fake shakes all the time so they shake just to get in the batters'€™ head a little bit so I think I'€™ve really progressed in that area." Though he hit just two homers, he did show the ability to drive the ball to the gaps, as evidenced by his 29 doubles and 38 extra-base hits, and in a different park and league (both Salem's home park and the Carolina League are notorious for their power-sapping dimensions), he's likely to see an uptick in homers. He's a player with the potential to hit .300 with solid OBPs, double-digit homers and well above-average defense in the majors. He may not be Vazquez's equal as a defender, but his overall performance this year points to a player with the highest ceiling of any catcher in the Sox system, and indeed one of the highest ceilings of any catcher in the minors. Carson Blair (23) High-A (with three rehab games in Lowell): 44 games, .250/.379/.447, 4 HR, 23 walks, 39 strikeouts, 42 percent caught stealing Notes: Blair just hasn't been able to stay healthy since entering pro ball and being converted to catching. In parts of six minor league seasons, he's played just 189 games. Jordan Weems (20) Single-A: 61 games, .204/.301/.244, 0 HR, 25 walks, 60 strikeouts, 16 percent caught stealing Notes: Weems was taken by the Sox in the third round of the 2011 draft. He showed an advanced enough approach that he was assigned (along with fellow 2011 draftee Swihart) to Single-A Greenville at the start of 2012, but he simply has yet to hit. He's still young enough that there is a chance he could claim some prospect status. Jayson Hernandez (24) Single-A: 60 games, .267/.324/.311, 1 HR, 9 walks, 36 strikeouts, 30 percent caught stealing Notes: He's a well-regarded organizational option, much like Spring. He made his mark off the field last offseason, organizing a fundraising drive by some Red Sox prospects who hail from New Jersey in support of victims of Hurricane Sandy, and he recently took part in the shoot of a Nike commercial. David Sopilka (19) Short-Season Single-A: 32 games, .167/.240/.185, 0 HR, 10 walks, 30 strikeouts, 29 percent caught stealing Notes: Two straight sub-.500 OPSes suggest he'll probably never see the majors, unless he can prove that his absurd 63 percent caught stealing rate in the Rookie Level GCL can be a thing. (Pudge Rodriguez never had a caught stealing rate as high as 60 percent in his major league career.) Alixon Suarez (18) Rookie League: 31 games, .211/.254/.266, 0 HR, 5 walks, 22 strikeouts, 27 percent caught stealing Notes: Suarez had a terrific year in the Dominican Summer League in 2012, but made little offensive impact in his first season in the States in 2013. Jon Denney (18) Rookie League: 26 games, .203/.379/.243, 0 HR, 18 walks, 29 strikeouts, 35 percent caught stealing Notes: Denney, a third-rounder in the 2013 draft, showed above-average power potential as a high schooler, and in his first exposure to pro ball, he showed the ability to get on base. It will be interesting to see whether the Sox view him as advanced enough to challenge him with an assignment to a full-season affiliate (Greenville) at the start of next year, as they did with Swihart and Weems, or if he will remain in extended spring training to advance his craft in anticipation of an assignment to short-season Lowell. Jhon Nunez (18) Dominican Summer League: .240/.333/.300, 0 HR, 26 walks, 23 strikeouts, 34 percent caught stealing