SoxProspects: Depth at catcher

March, 9, 2013
3/09/13
11:40
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Editor's note: This is the second of a five-part series on depth in the Red Sox farm system.

While there are a couple potential starters among the bunch, there isn't an immediate need for major league depth given that Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross, and Mike Napoli are all stated to start the season on Boston's 25-man roster. However, the door is open for Ryan Lavarnway to take on a larger role in 2014, and for former first rounder Blake Swihart to compete for a starting job in late 2015 or early 2016.

For more prospect news and analysis, check out SoxProspects.com.

POTENTIAL MAJOR LEAGUE STARTERS

Swihart, 20, is expected to break camp with High-A Salem. Drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft, the Red Sox gave Swihart a $2.5 million bonus to buy him out of his commitment to the University of Texas. In his first full pro season in 2012, he hit .262/.307/.395 with Low-A Greenville. An athletic switch hitter, Swihart projects as a good contact hitter with average power, good instincts, and decent speed. He has impressive defensive tools, but due to his smaller frame, it's unclear whether he'll be able to endure the rigors of catching every day over the long term. He's athletic enough to move to third base if need be. Overall, he has the skills do develop into an All-Star catcher, but he's still about three years away from the major leagues, and a lot can happen in that time.

[+] EnlargeRyan Lavarnway
Michael Ivins/Getty ImagesRyan Lavarnway played in 46 games in 2012 for the Red Sox.
Lavarnway, 25, will likely be the odd man out off the 25-man roster, thus should start the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. He's shown himself to be a more-than-capable hitter at the minor league level, posting a career line of .286/.376/.439 with 85 home runs in 1,691 at-bats. However, he's struggled in limited major league opportunities, and he took a step back in 2012, seemingly while focusing on his defense. Spending the early parts of 2013 in Triple-A may help Lavarnway get back on track at the plate. Defensively, he has indeed shown some improvements, but his range, reaction time, and agility are still below-average. Ultimately, he may be best suited as a platoon catcher who also spends some time as a designated hitter.

POTENTIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BACKUPS

Christian Vazquez, 22, has the makings of an excellent major league backup catcher. A ninth round pick in 2008, Vazquez split the 2012 between Salem and Double-A Portland, hitting .255/.346/.371 with 7 home runs. With the exception of average ball-blocking skills, he has plus defensive skills across the board - including a cannon arm, impressive agility, and solid game-calling skills. He's adequate offensively, showing gap power and average bat speed. However, he struggles against high velocity fastballs and advanced breaking pitches, so he may be exposed in regular time at Double-A or higher. That said, his bat should be solid enough to stick as a backup catcher with some occasional pop.

Dan Butler, 26, is expected to split time with Lavarnway behind the dish in Pawtucket to start the year. An undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona in 2009, Butler made substantial strides over the past four seasons. He was added to Boston's 40-man roster and will be a legitimate catching option for the big club if an injury arises, which in and of itself is a remarkable accomplishment for an undrafted free agent. An above-average defensive catcher, Butler can still make improvements in the area of game calling. On offense, he has a patient approach and fringe-average power. Like Vazquez, he can be a solid backup at the major league level, but Butler would get a better chance with a second division club.

Alixon Suarez, 18, will make his debut stateside in 2013. The Venezuelan backstop spent the last two season in the Dominican Summer League, posting a line of .248/.384/.358 with 6 home runs over 125 games. He's obviously still on the raw side, but showed some flashes of major league potential in the 2012 Fall Instructional League. He's solid defensively for his age, and has the ability to develop into a fringe-average contact hitter with a little bit of pop. He'll stay back in extended spring training to begin the season, and more than likely spend the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, with an outside shot at heading north with short-season Lowell. Overall, Suarez is the type of player who may never make it above A-ball, or he could develop into a potential major league contributor over the long-term, similar to the path taken by Vazquez.

Others to Watch: Three other catchers to keep an eye on are Adalberto Ibarra, a 25-year-old Cuban import signed to a $750,000 bonus in 2010; Jordan Weems, a once promising prep prospect who had a woeful year at the plate in 2012, but who could be due for a bounce back season; and Alberto Rosario, a 26-year-old Dominican backstop who is expected to serve as depth in Portland or Pawtucket.

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