Blake Swihart’s career path has been anything but conventional. The former first-round pick was considered one of the game’s elite prospects prior to the 2015 season and was heralded as a potential cornerstone behind the dish before injuries, questions about his defense and the emergence of Christian Vazquez changed his role. Swihart took to the outfield in 2016 with the hope that he’d be able to improve his defense there on the fly while keeping his bat in the lineup, but an ankle injury cost him most of the season. By the time he returned, Andrew Benintendi was entrenched as Boston’s everyday left fielder.
Swihart is now a man without a real role on a Red Sox team that is effectively employing a 24-man roster. Vazquez and Sandy Leon continue to handle the catching, while Benintendi, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley and J.D. Martinez are all more frequently used in the outfield. Swihart has appeared in only 15 games for the Sox this season and totaled 32 plate appearances. His only four starts have been at DH. He’s played a grand total of 24 innings in the field — 19 in the outfield, four at first base and one behind the plate. The Red Sox have used Swihart about as often as the rebuilding Tigers have used Victor Reyes — a 23-year-old Rule 5 outfielder they’re trying to hold onto for the entire season despite the fact that he’s not quite MLB ready.
Suffice it to say, no one should have been surprised to learn this morning that Swihart’s agent, Brodie Scoffield of the Legacy Agency, asked the Red Sox to trade his client. The current setup is a poor one for team and player. Boston can’t send Swihart to Triple-A for regular at-bats because he is out of minor league options and would surely be lost on waivers. He’s not going to provide virtually any value in such a limited role, though, and the Red Sox could probably make better use of that spot by giving it to a true fourth outfielder, a utility infielder capable of handling several positions, or a reliever with options remaining to create some additional flexibility in the ’pen.
Assuming president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski eventually honors the request and gauges interest in Swihart, there’ll probably be no shortage of clubs interested in taking a shot on the once-vaunted prospect. Some speculative fits for the switch-hitting 26-year-old…
- Nationals: It was a surprise that the Nats didn’t add any catching help this offseason, as Matt Wieters turned in a terrible first year in D.C. and the organization had limited options beyond him. Miguel Montero signed a minor league deal but was quickly jettisoned, and the Nats now have Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom behind the plate with Wieters on the disabled list. Swihart is hardly a definitive upgrade, as he’s yet to prove himself over an extended period in the Majors, but he has more upside than their internal options.
- Twins: Minnesota found out on Wednesday that Jason Castro will miss the remainder of the season after surgeons discovered more damage than expected when operating on his right knee. Rookie Mitch Garver and journeyman Bobby Wilson now top the team’s depth chart behind the plate, so perhaps the Twins would be open to flipping some pitching depth for a chance at Swihart.
- Brewers: Milwaukee catchers are hitting a combined .197/.274/.333 on the season, as neither Manny Pina nor Jett Bandy has been performing well. Veteran Stephen Vogt’s season is over due to shoulder surgery, leaving Jacob Nottingham and former prospect Christian Bethancourt as the only upper-level alternatives currently within the organization. Swihart won’t see much, if any playing time in a crowded Milwaukee outfield, but there should be at-bats up for grabs at catcher.
- Mets: Catching is an obvious area of need for the Mets, though they’ve already made one move in the past week, acquiring Devin Mesoraco from the Reds. Given that Kevin Plawecki is nearing a return from a broken hand, it doesn’t seem likely that the Mets would swing a second trade in the near future. But if Swihart is still in Boston as the All-Star break approaches and the Plawecki/Mesoraco tandem is struggling, perhaps the Mets would make another change.
- Athletics: Jonathan Lucroy is only on a one-year deal with the A’s, and Bruce Maxwell’s lack of production was already enough to make him a questionable long-term option before his highly publicized off-field issues. Oakland has room in the outfield corners as well and certainly has never had an aversion to rotating players through multiple positions.
- Rangers: Robinson Chirinos is signed affordably through 2019, and the Rangers do have a fair bit of catching talent in the pipeline, though most of those prospects are still several years away from the Majors. Isiah Kiner-Falefa has done some catching in the minors but has only caught three games this season and has been working primarily as an infielder. There’s not much room in the outfield corners once Willie Calhoun arrives for good, and the Rangers do have former Phillies backstop Cameron Rupp in Triple-A. Still, there’s more playing time available for Swihart in Arlington than there is in Boston.
- White Sox: Welington Castillo is the primary catcher for manager Rick Renteria, and that won’t change after he signed a two-year, $15MM contract in the offseason. But Swihart could easily displace Omar Narvaez as the backup and see some occasional outfield time as well.
- Padres: No one questions Austin Hedges’ defensive prowess, but he’s yet to prove that he can get on base at the highest level. Hedges mashed 18 homers last season but did so with a .262 OBP that ranked dead last in the National League (min. 400 PA). San Diego has a stacked farm system but is still light on catching talent in the upper minors. The Padres don’t really have much to offer in the way of playing time in the outfield or at first base, so they’d need to believe that Swihart can make an impact behind the dish.
- Marlins: J.T. Realmuto is among the game’s best catchers, but he’s also one of the most easily identifiable trade candidates in Major League Baseball as well. The Marlins will get offers on Swihart this summer, and while they won’t simply take the best one that’s presented with Realmuto controlled through 2020, there’s still a chance that he moves. If they hang onto him, the rumor carousel will fire up again this winter. There’s no real catching help on the horizon beyond Realmuto, and the Marlins are the exact type of rebuilding club that can afford to give Swihart a lengthy look behind the plate.
- Diamondbacks: Arizona GM Mike Hazen and assistant GMs Amiel Sawdaye and Jared Porter all have Red Sox roots, and D-backs catchers haven’t hit whatsoever in 2018. The Diamondbacks added Alex Avila on an affordable two-year deal in the offseason, but that’s yet to pay dividends. Defensive specialist Jeff Mathis isn’t hitting, either, and John Ryan Murphy has a .259 OBP. The Diamondbacks have carried three catchers in each of the past two seasons, and the Hazen-led front office took a similar roll of the dice on another out-of-options former Boston first-rounder, Deven Marrero, late in Spring Training.
Other clubs could and almost certainly will inquire, as well, of course. It stands to reason that while some organizations may not be sold on Swihart as a catcher, they’d be perfectly content to give him a tryout in left field and/or at first base. Some clubs are probably keen on simply shuffling him around at all three positions. In that sense, one could make an argument for Swihart fitting on just about any club in the league, given that he’s likely to have a low cost of acquisition and comes with a fair bit of upside even if his prospect star has undeniably dimmed.
Of course, if the goal of this exercise is to find an organization in need of an upgrade behind the plate, where he brings the most potential value, it’s worth stressing that perhaps no club in baseball could use a boost more than Swihart’s current team. Vazquez and Leon are batting a combined .174/.224/.219, but the Red Sox have still not seen fit to give Swihart more than that one lone inning behind the dish.
Evan Drellich of NBC Sports Boston recently chatted with Red Sox catching coordinator Chad Epperson about the work Swihart is putting into catching drills in taking a lengthier look at Swihart’s unusual role (or lack thereof) with the team. Within, pitching coach Dana LeVangie acknowledged the dilemma facing the Red Sox: in order for Swihart to improve, the biggest thing he needs is consistent reps behind the plate. Those simply aren’t available in Boston right now, despite the struggles of the team’s top two catchers.
The Sox, of course, signed Vazquez to a $13.55MM extension this offseason due in no small part to his defensive talents. It’s somewhat more puzzling that there doesn’t appear to be any thought to displacing Leon, however, as he’s hit just .217/.280/.336 in 351 plate appearances dating back to last season.
That the Sox aren’t willing to displace either struggling bat to give Swihart a more legitimate look behind the plate certainly seems like a statement on how they view his current defense. But it still seems likely that another club would be happy to acquire his bat at a discount rate in hopes that increased reps will help him to hone his craft. And for the Sox, who figure to spend the season vying for the AL East crown with the Yankees, having a 25th man on the roster whom they could actually use from time to time certainly seems like an endeavor worth pursuing sooner rather than later.