BOSTON, Mass. -- Since Jason Varitek first showed signs that he was beginning to age several years ago, Red Sox fans have been clamoring to identify the team’s catcher of the future. Prospect followers have bet on a number of players to come up the ladder -- from those since traded, such as Tim Federowicz, to those still around like Ryan Lavarnway, to those still farther down the system, like Christian Vazquez. But the team may have finally found that future stalwart in 20-year-old Blake Swihart.
Swihart was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft with the pick Boston received as compensation for departed free agent Adrian Beltre. Though Swihart was considered one of the top catching talents in that draft, it was not a position at which he actually had much experience.
“I started practicing catching my junior year [of high school],” said Swihart at the Jimmy Fund’s recent New Stars for Young Stars fund-raiser. “But even my junior and senior year, I played shortstop in high school. So I didn't start catching until I got drafted really.”
Swihart has the distinction of being the highest-profile Red Sox draftee to receive an over-slot bonus before the current collective bargaining agreement took effect, which greatly curtailed such tactics. The high schooler out of New Mexico was a superb raw athlete who would have likely gone higher in the draft were teams not scared off by his strong commitment to the University of Texas. Boston was able to buy Swihart out of that commitment though by giving him a $2.5 million bonus, well above the slot recommendation for the 26th overall pick.
Making a full-season team out of spring training, as Swihart did with Low A Greenville last year, is always a positive sign for a draftee fresh out of high school, especially one that played only two professional games in 2011. But it is more impressive that he caught 66 games after having little in-game experience at the position before being drafted. That full immersion into catching paid dividends.
“Big strides,” he exclaimed when asked how much progress he made defensively last season. “And then this offseason I've just improved even more and hopefully next season I can [keep improving].”
Catcher is one of the hardest positions to develop, and it often takes extra time for catchers to climb their way up through the system. In addition to it being one of the harder positions to master physically, catching requires a certain level of mental fortitude and leadership to guide pitchers through a game. Those intangibles, Swihart said, were where he made the most improvement defensively last season.
“Learning how to call the games, learning the pitchers,” he said.
This offseason, he said he's been working hard to stay in touch with the pitchers to keep those relationships strong.
Though he is a top-notch athlete and has a plus arm, he will need to overcome some early questions relating to his build. He's listed at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, but is thin in his lower body. Scouts look for a bigger base and legs in order to stand up to the rigors of catching; how Swihart’s body fills out as he ages will be something for scouts to monitor. Otherwise, he has excellent reflexes, fluid actions, and uses his quick feet to move well laterally.
Still, if Swihart does move off the position, it will not necessarily cause a hit to his value. He played mostly shortstop and some outfield through his senior season in high school. SoxProspects.com scouts see his most likely destination as either third or second base if he does move from behind the plate, conjuring comparisons to Craig Biggio on that side of the ball, and his bat is projected to be good enough to play at either spot. Less athletic catchers that are limited to first base or designated hitter face much more pressure to perform on offense if they need to move from behind the dish.
“That's not my call,” he said on the possibility of changing positions. “I just have to keep doing what they tell me. And hopefully I'll get to the next level at whatever they want me to play.”
With the bat, Swihart showed great potential in Greenville last season, even if his final line of .262/.307/.395 is not overly impressive. The switch-hitter with a sweet swing from both sides of the plate was young for the league, possibly leading to April struggles culminating in a .178 average for the month. He was able to show a great ability to adjust, however, batting .281/.312/.425 with six of his seven home runs coming after the calendar turned to May.
Swihart has plus bat speed, and with work on his plate approach he could be a .300-type hitter who can belt around 20 home runs at the major league level. The catcher pointed to pitch selection as the area where he felt he made the most progress offensively last season, a positive sign for any young hitter.
Another factor in his potential offensive upside is that he did not begin hitting from the left side of the plate until his junior year of high school. Still learning the intricacies of switch-hitting, Swihart has plenty of room for growth in that way.
“[Batting] lefty, I just had to re-learn everything I knew from the right side,” he said. “Pitch selection [was a major challenge as a left-handed batter]. I had to learn when it was a strike and when it wasn't.”
It appears his work learning to hit lefty already paid off last season, as he batted .271 against right-handed pitchers and just .232 from his natural side facing southpaws. His strikeout and walk rates were better as a right-handed hitter though, showing that aforementioned learning curve on pitch selection as a lefty. It is worth noting as well that he had just 82 at-bats as a righty, so it is a fairly small sample size.
Swihart projects to start the season at High A Salem this year. The catcher said he is just looking to improve all around this season, and if he continues to do so, he could be the answer to a question many Red Sox fans see as currently unanswered.