BOSTON -- There's no bad blood between Boston Red Sox catching prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Working out together as part of the Red Sox's annual Rookie Development Program, the two were both in good spirits on Friday, joking with the rest of the team's 10 participants this year.
However, Vazquez and Swihart are both competing with the same goal in mind: being the Red Sox's next starting catcher for years to come.
"I think we're very lucky to be in a position where we've got three guys, potentially four with Blake at the upper levels, that could help us at the major-league level," director of player development Ben Crockett said. "Obviously [Ryan] Lavarnway was there last year and is the most experienced of that group and I think the two other guys that saw time at Triple-A last year, with Vazquez and [Dan] Butler, there wouldn't be a ton of hesitation to expose any of those guys if the timing was right and the situation was right."
Lavarnway, 26, and Butler, 27, have been at the upper rungs of the pro baseball ladder longer than Vazquez, 23, and Swihart, 21. The younger prospects have continued to progress through the Red Sox system each year. Vazquez is projected to start at Triple-A Pawtucket while Swihart, 21, is a decent bet to break camp with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs. The duo is believed to be the reason Boston signed veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal this offseason as opposed to going long term with another free-agent option.
Since being drafted out of high school in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft, Swihart has had high expectations. A switch-hitter out of New Mexico, Swihart had a breakout season last year, hitting .298 in 103 games with High-A Salem and being named Red Sox minor league defensive player of the year.
"Blake really has continued to make a lot of progress on both sides of the ball but particularly defensively," Crockett said. "I think we kind of recognized that with the defensive player of the year. He's a tremendous athlete, someone that had gotten a lot better behind the plate and he's got plenty of arm strength and I think that athleticism is really starting to translate behind the plate."
Swihart threw out 41.5 percent of attempted base stealers in 2013, leading the Carolina League. The 21-year-old is proud of the work he's done, but still feels there's room to improve.
"I've learned a lot and I still have a lot more to learn," Swihart said. "It's been great, a good experience. I love catching, I love being in every play. It's come along really good."
Swihart is one of eight Red Sox rookies not on the 40-man roster to be invited to major league spring training this year. He thinks the experience will give him a whole new set of opportunities heading into next season.
"I feel like everything I still need to work on, especially catching," Swihart said. "I'm still new to catching. You're always learning with catching. You might find a new pitcher you're catching that day you need to get comfortable with, learn his pitches, learn what he likes to throw in certain counts."
He added, "They always need catchers for bullpens in big league camp. 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."
Big league camp is where Vazquez made a name for himself last year, featuring an incredible throwing arm that allowed him to catch all five baserunners who attempted to steal against him. His success carried over into the regular season, when he threw out 46.5 percent of attempted base stealers, and even continued into the Puerto Rican Winter League, where he threw out 63 percent of attempted base stealers while playing with Santurce.
Vazquez is participating in the Rookie Development Program for the second consecutive year, the first Red Sox prospect to do so since pitcher Felix Doubront in 2009 and 2010. Vazquez said his hitting is what he hopes to emphasize this season.
"Working with my offense, my hitting point," Vazquez said he'd like to improve. "[I want to] continue to work on that."
Vazquez led the Sea Dogs with a .289 average last season, ninth among Eastern League qualifiers. Between Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, the 23-year-old hit .287 while getting on base at a .375 clip, both new single-season career highs.
"I think I was more focused, patient," Vazquez said. "Watched the game, watched the opening pitcher. I was more concentrated in the batter's box. Talking to [Rich Gedman] who was my hitting coach last year, he helped me a lot to be focused to the game more and look for one spot to hit."
With a logjam of catchers at the upper levels of their minor league system, particularly in Pawtucket, the Red Sox will have a tough time this season ensuring playing time for everybody involved. However, Crockett believes that working with the major league staff during the team's Rookie Development Program as well as spring training is the key for ensuring a smooth transition to the major-league level.
"I think each of those three guys [Lavarnway, Butler and Vazquez] are at different points in their development offensively and defensively," Crockett said. "I think this camp in particular and others that we've done in the past are really important for everybody but in particular the catchers to get as much exposure as possible to the major-league staff, the way of thinking things, the information that goes into the advance reports is something they just need to get more familiar with."
As for Swihart, who remains lowest on the depth chart, there's no concern about whether or not he'll get a chance to make his debut this season.
"I let everyone else worry about that, the front-office guys," Swihart said. "I just go out and play my game, do what I can do. That's what I can focus on."