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The Curious Case of Blake Swihart

Blake Swihart by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY SA-2.0

The Curious Case of Blake Swihart

Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Blake Swihart’s agent has reportedly asked the Boston Red Sox to trade his client. Swihart, who is batting a lowly .133 this season in a mere 30 at-bats, is struggling to see consistent playing time with Boston. He’s started only 4 games, all at DH. In his 25 innings in the field so far in 2018, he has spent exactly 2 of them at catcher, the very position the Red Sox had him convert to just about seven years ago. If he wasn’t out of minor league options, there’s a good chance he’d be in the minor leagues.

How is it that, in the span of a few years, the poised catching prospect with a golden bat now can barely see the field? To answer that question, we have to look back on the mini-Odyssey that is his career.

Where It Began

Swihart, for those who don’t know, played shortstop and outfield in high school, and signed with the Red Sox in 2011 after being taken by the team in the first round of the MLB draft. The Red Sox then worked with Swihart to convert him to catcher to take advantage of his athletic ability and strong throwing arm. And he performed well in the minor leagues, slashing .293/.341/.469 over 110 games in 2014 between AA and AAA ball while putting in solid work defensively in a full-time role behind the plate. After posting some excellent offensive numbers (.321/.368/.370) through 22 games in the minors the next season, the Red Sox called him up to the parent club in May of 2015 following an injury to Ryan Hanigan.

Swihart would go on to play 84 games that season with Red Sox, hitting .274 with five home runs. He didn’t blow anyone away, but he proved that he could hit for average at the major league level. Not a bad start.

But 2016 would be a different story for Swihart. After concerns that his defense and signal-calling wasn’t up to snuff, the Red Sox sent Swihart back down to AAA Pawtucket a few weeks into the regular season. Defensive wizard Christian Vazquez took over behind the plate and showed serious promise in Boston handling the pitching staff. This left the Red Sox in a catching conundrum. They wanted Swihart’s bat but Vazquez’s glove and they wanted them both in the lineup together.

With David Ortiz locking down the DH role, the Sox knew that if Swihart was to get some at-bats in the Majors, he needed a spot in the field. So during his brief hiatus back to AAA at the beginning of 2016, Swihart made 11 starts in left field for Pawtucket. And in late May of that season, once the Red Sox deemed him ready, Swihart made his MLB debut in left field in a game against Cleveland.

But once again, things would take a tough turn for Swihart.

In June of 2016, he collided with the wall while trying to make a play on a fly ball at Fenway Park. The collision severely injured his ankle and required season-ending corrective surgery in the following months. Swihart would not take the field for the Red Sox for over a year following this injury. He managed to appear in six games at the tail end of the 2017 season, totaling one hit in seven plate appearances.

Which brings us to today.

Swihart has not been an everyday catcher in the majors since that half-season stretch in 2015. He’s had minimal chances to improve upon his skills behind the plate, which likely doesn’t matter anyhow since the Red Sox seem to like their current catcher combo of Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon. And while Swihart has gotten some reps at 1st base and in the corner outfield spots, he’s out of luck there too. Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland are hitting well, and with the addition of J.D. Martinez, the outfield unit of Betts/Benintendi/Bradley from last season just got a little more crowded. Dustin Pedroia is due back soon, Brock Holt has solidified a role as the super-utility guy, and suddenly… there simply is no more room for Swihart. It’s clear as day.

I can’t help but wonder whether or not Swihart got his fair shake in all of this. I mean, he got drafted by the Sox and agreed to convert to a position he had never played before. And in the midst of his professional development behind the plate, the Sox decided to try him out in left to get his bat in the lineup. But wait if they waited it out? What if they let Swihart hone is craft in the minors, and stick with the trajectory the Red Sox had originally set out for him. Could he have improved? Maybe, maybe not. And of course, hindsight is a perfect 20/20. But it looks like the move to the outfield only presented Swihart with more hurdles than opportunities.

Now, you may say “Well, he busted his ankle, that has a lot to do with his struggles.” And you’d be right. I agree. But, play it out in your mind. Let’s say Swihart doesn’t get hurt and mans a left-field platoon out there with Chris Young in 2016. Then, 2017 rolls around, and Andrew Benintendi comes up like he did and plays an everyday role in left field. I’d argue that even if healthy, Swihart would be fighting for playing time as a utility guy like he is doing now. Which leaves me confused…How could the Red Sox leave such a talented prospect, an “un-tradeable” prospect even at times, with minimal paths to success? Being an everyday catcher seems out of the question now. And the irony? Offense from the catcher position is the one weak spot to their otherwise potent lineup. Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez have been downright awful at the plate this season. Perhaps, had Swihart stayed on the catching-course, he’d prove more valuable now than ever before. But the Red Sox didn’t trust his defense then, and they certainly don’t trust it now.

What I do know, is that Blake Swihart has the ability to be a major league ballplayer. But unfortunately, as Sox fans, we really only know him as the next up-and-coming bat in our system. A bat that we have barely yet to see in Boston, and very soon may see for the last time.

Ryan Kelly lives in Cambridge, MA, a stone's throw away from his beloved Boston teams. When he is not working as an editorial assistant, he is providing commentary on the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins for The Turf.

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