PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Ryan Hanigan, a native of Andover, Massachusetts, was traded twice on one day last December to wind up with his hometown team. Now, a week before the Boston Red Sox break camp, the 34-year-old catcher who has never caught more than 100 games in a season in an eight-year big-league career is about to become the team’s No. 1 catcher because of an elbow injury to the highly regarded Christian Vazquez.
The Red Sox have not announced the extent of Vazquez’s injury, other than to say he would be seeking a second opinion after results of an MRI administered Friday showed some degree of structural damage. But it was clear from Hanigan’s comments following Boston’s 9-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday that the injury is more than a short-term concern and points to possible surgery.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen," Hanigan said. “He’s a good kid. He worked hard. It's just too bad. Things happen. He’ll be back. Just have to put in the work to get himself back.
“The positive thing is whatever happens, he hopefully won’t have to deal with it the rest of his career. Take care of it now. I don’t know the details. I was looking forward to working with him this year. Just too bad."
Hanigan termed it a “shock” to learn that the elbow issue that surfaced after Vazquez threw out a Yankees minor-leaguer, Tyler Wade, attempting to steal a base in a March 13 game at JetBlue Park has become the most serious health issue to face the Sox this spring. The Sox arranged for Vazquez to undergo an MRI on Friday, manager John Farrell said, after Vazquez, who said he was making progress in his throwing program, appeared to have “plateaued” in his recovery from the injury.
Hanigan was Tampa Bay’s Opening Day catcher last season and started 31 of the team’s first 52 games. But he went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring — the team went 1-12 in his absence — then made a second trip to the DL in July with a strained left oblique that cost him six weeks. The previous year, with Cincinnati, he played just 75 games because of two other DL stints, one because of an oblique strain, the other because of a sprained left wrist.
Last Dec. 19, Tampa Bay dealt him to the San Diego Padres, who hours later flipped him to the Red Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. While Farrell at the time of the deal declared Vazquez as the team’s primary catcher, Hanigan said he was preparing as if he would be the team’s everyday catcher. Now, because of Vazquez’s injury, that is the likely scenario, with veteran backup Humberto Quintero behind him. Farrell mentioned Blake Swihart, the No. 1 prospect in the organization, as another possibility, but indications are that the Sox will want Swihart to gain more experience in Triple-A, though a call-up at some point during the season appears inevitable.
"I always trained to come in to be the starting guy," Hanigan said. “That's what I always wanted, to tell you the truth. I trained that way in the offseason, worked hard to be ready whenever my name was called."
Hanigan said he believes he has become sufficiently acquainted with the team’s pitching staff, no easy task given that he is a newcomer and four of the five pitchers in the starting rotation have been added since July 31.
“I know where all these guys are at; I know their checkpoints," he said. “I think I can benefit from the next week-and-a-half to work on sequencing of pitches … but I know what their ball does, I know how they want to pitch. I’ve been able to talk to them, give my two cents. They’ve been very receptive. There’s been good feedback. I’m excited."
Hanigan said he had some throwing issues with his elbow early in his playing career but was able to correct them without resorting to surgery.
“I changed the way I threw and followed a strength program to take the pressure off my elbow," he said. “They helped me to learn to throw to take as much pressure off my elbow as I could. I changed things to make sure I wasn’t cranking on the elbow.
“Fortunately for me, to tell you the truth, my arm is stronger and hurting less. I went the last three, four seasons where I could throw as hard as I want every day. I think I got my mechanics down, my program down to where it works."
In Vazquez, the Sox are losing a catcher who was favorably compared to St. Louis Cardinals’ All-Star Yadier Molina, not only for his formidable arm strength but his overall defensive skills behind the plate — pitch framing, blocking pitches, game calling. “I call him mini-Yadi," said pitcher Joe Kelly, who was Molina’s teammate before being traded to the Red Sox.
After his call-up on July 9, Vazquez became the team’s regular catcher, replacing A.J. Pierzynski (released), playing in 55 games (50 starts) and throwing out 51.7 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him, 15 of 29. That’s the best rate in Sox history for any catcher playing 50 games or more.
Hanigan, like another Sox backup catcher of recent vintage, David Ross, comes with a solid defensive reputation. He has a career caught-stealing rate of 38 percent (115 of 303), although that number fell to 21 percent last season (8 of 38). The Rays signed him to a three-year, $10.75 million deal before the 2014 season, believing he would handle the majority of their catching duties. But injuries, and his second off-year at the plate (.198 with the Reds in 2013, .218 last season with the Rays) made him expendable.
Hanigan, who had a hit in three at-bats Saturday, is batting .263 this spring.
“I’m getting there," said Hanigan, who added he hoped to get at least another 15-or-so at-bats before the end of camp.