Burden now falls on Blake Swihart, the latest Red Sox can't-miss prospect

BOSTON -- The Red Sox don’t have a choice, really. An everyday catcher is a commodity not easily acquired in December; it’s virtually impossible in May.

So let the Blake Swihart era begin. Sooner than expected, to be sure. The kid has less Triple-A experience than any Sox catcher summoned to the majors to handle the responsibility of being the team’s No. 1 receiver.

But if he is as good as advertised -- and all spring we heard he was the nonnegotiable price for ace Cole Hamels in any deal with the Phillies -- the Sox are not asking the impossible of the 23-year-old Swihart. The player he is most often compared to, San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, was the same age when he was a May callup for the Giants in 2010 and hit over .300 the rest of the season and was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Matt Wieters and Russell Martin were the same age when they became regulars.

Thurman Munson was 23 when he became Yankees catcher in 1970. Benito Santiago was 22. So were the ancient legends, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane. Tim McCarver was 21. Johnny Bench and Joe Torre and Ted Simmons were 20. Pudge Rodriguez was 19.

Closer to home, Christian Vazquez was 23 when he came up last season and immediately evoked comparisons to Yadier Molina. Worcester’s Rich Gedman was 21 in 1981, when he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Carlton Fisk was a grizzled 24 when he was named Rookie of the Year in 1972.

"I like challenges," Swihart said before making his debut Saturday afternoon in a 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees in which he had an infield hit, walked, and struck out twice, the last punchout serving as the final out of the game.

And now he has one. Vazquez has his right elbow encased in a frightening-looking contraption after undergoing Tommy John surgery that will sideline him until next spring. Ryan Hanigan, the local favorite from Andover, underwent surgery on his right pinky finger and will be out until at least the All-Star break.

Swihart becomes the man now expected to shepherd the team’s rebuilt starting rotation through the summer. That assignment got off to a good start Saturday with left-hander Wade Miley, who went seven innings for the first time this season, did not walk a batter, and avoided the big innings that turned his two previous starts toxic. Miley took the loss, having allowed three runs while the Sox could only counter with a pair.

Miley offered a positive review of his new batterymate.

"Wish we could have won this one," Miley said, "but he did a really good job back there and I think he will be fine.

"I talked to him before the game. We got a game plan and I thought he did an excellent job back there, the way he called the game and everything. We sat on the same page all game."

The pitch selection was the province of Miley and Swihart. All those times you may have seen him looking in the dugout? He was picking up the signs from bench coach Torey Lovullo regarding the running game -- when to have Miley throw over, when to step off, when to vary times to the plate, when to pitch out.

The lack of experience will show up most in pitch-calling, managing the game and the defensive work, like framing and blocking pitches,reading swings at the plate, skills that Vazquez possesses at a strikingly advanced level.

"His receiving, I thought, he made very good progress in spring training, and that’s continued," manager John Farrell said before the game.

"He’s going to be exposed for the first time at the major leagues so there’s going to be some subtleties, some things that are different, particularly game-calling against major league hitters that have the capability to make adjustments more readily than what he’s experienced. So that’ll be a first for him. And getting to know Wade Miley today and the other guys on our staff in the regular season, not just in spring training.

Offensively? Swihart, who in high school in New Mexico was rated as the No., 1 catcher in the 2011 draft by Baseball America before being taken with the 26th overall pick by the Red Sox, didn’t start playing catcher until his senior year. But his bat and athleticism have consistently drawn raves, and he was batting a team-leading .338 through his first month in Triple-A.

He showed speed atypical for his position when he beat out an infield hit to second base in the fourth, and again in the seventh, when he drew a two-out walk and scored from first on a double by Mookie Betts.

"I pride myself on being an athlete," he said. "So I don't want to be the typical catcher, I guess you'd say. I want to be able to do it all and stay athletic. That's a big thing I work on when I go home in the off-season is getting my speed up, getting my quickness up, as well as getting bigger and stronger."

He also struck out twice, the first time after a nine-pitch at-bat against Nate Eovaldi, the second when he was overwhelmed by reliever Dellin Betances, like the three Sox batters before him, and was called out on strikes. But while he acknowledged a touch of nerves, Swhiart said he never felt overwhelmed. Nor did he look like he was.

"It was a lot to take in," he said, "but you’ve got to learn how to control that and play the game. Each level you go to gets more and more intense, and this is the most intensity there is. I just want to go out there and harness my nervousness and go out there and have fun."

And Swihart is plenty smart enough to know that the most fun will come with winning. At arguably the three most important positions on the field -- catcher, center field (Mookie Betts) and shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) -- the Sox are going with a 23-year-old and two 22-year-olds. How they progress will be a referendum on how well the Sox draft and develop players. But this is not just a bet on the future. This is about today.