Editor's note: This is the second of a five-part series on depth in the Red Sox farm system.
Boston's minor league depth at catcher improved in 2013, and some of the team's possible future backstops have already impressed even more so far this spring. Given that both A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross are both 37 years old and on one-year deals, the future for Boston's catching prospects may come sooner than later. While it's never a slam dunk, the door for the starting and/or backup catching jobs for 2015 is open for these prospects to earn.
For more prospect news and analysis, check out SoxProspects.com.
POTENTIAL MAJOR LEAGUE STARTERS
Blake Swihart, 21, was in camp with the big club (he was sent down Thursday), and is expected to start the 2014 season with Double-A Portland. 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. In 2013, the switch hitter batted .298/.366/.428 for High-A Salem. An athletic backstop, Swihart projects as a good contact hitter with average power, good instincts and decent speed. He has very impressive all-around defensive tools, and was named the Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. However, 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 second base or third base if need be. Overall, he has the skills to develop into an All-Star catcher, but he's still a year or two away from being major league ready.
Christian Vazquez, 23, could develop into a gold glove catcher if he hits well enough to play every day. A ninth-round pick in 2008, Vazquez spent the majority of the 2013 season with Portland, hitting .289/.376/.395 with 5 home runs. With the exception of average ball-blocking skills, he has plus defensive skills across the board -- including an elite arm, impressive agility, and solid game-calling skills. He's adequate offensively, showing gap power and average bat speed. Vazquez has had struggles against high-velocity fastballs and advanced breaking pitches in the past, but made some nice offensive adjustments in 2013 while still improving defensively. He still might get exposed offensively at the Triple-A level. At the very least, he possesses the skills to be an excellent backup catcher or solid platoon backstop. But he's looking more and more like a future starter as time goes on. Vazquez is expected to start this season in Triple-A Pawtucket. If one of the major league catchers gets injured, it seems likely that Ryan Lavarnway or Dan Butler might be a short-term solution, while Vazquez might be called on to fill in if a longer-term injury happened in the second half of the season.
POTENTIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BACKUPS
Ryan Lavarnway, 26, will likely be the odd man out off the 25-man roster again, starting the season back in Pawtucket. However, given the presence of Vazquez and Butler on the PawSox roster, Lavarnway might be relegated to spend a majority of his time at first base and designated hitter. Until 2013, he showed 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. But his production dropped off in 2013 and he continued to struggle in limited major league opportunities. Lavarnway is a slightly below-average defensive catcher, with limited range, reaction time and agility. At first base, he's shown more ability than was expected early on, but he's also not going to be an above-average defensive first baseman. If he can re-adjust and get back to his previous offensive form and prove himself to be adequate at first base, Lavarnway could have a spot on the Red Sox in the future as a backup C/1B/DH. If the Red Sox front office see those roles as filled with other options for the foreseeable future, which is a distinct possibility, Lavarnway might get a better opportunity in another organization.
Dan Butler, 27, is expected to split time with Vazquez 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 five seasons. Already on Boston's 40-man roster, he may be the leading backup catching option for the big club if a short-term injury arises, which in and of itself is a remarkable accomplishment for an undrafted free agent. An above-average defensive catcher, Butler has made some improvements in the area of game calling, and at this point seemingly just needs to familiarize himself better with the major league staff. On offense, he has a patient approach and fringe-average power. He should have a solid career as a backup at the major league level, although he might get a better chance with a second-division club over the long term, especially if Swihart and Vazquez continue to develop as expected.
Jon Denney, 19, was selected in the third round (No. 81 overall) of the 2013 draft, after initially being projected as a first-round pick. The Red Sox gave him an $875,000 signing bonus to buy him out of his commitment to the University of Arkansas. An athletic catcher with solid power potential, Denney projects to be an average hitter, but his defense lags behind at this point. He has a strong arm and adequate agility. He made his professional debut with the Rookie-Level GCL Red Sox in 2013, hitting just .203/.379/.243 in 26 games. He should start 2014 in either Low-A Greenville or Short-A Lowell. Overall, Denney is still several years away, and has lots of development time ahead of him.
Others to Watch: Two other young catchers to keep an eye on are Jhon Nunez, a 19-year-old Venezuelan switch-hitting backstop who is expected to play for the GCL Red Sox in 2014, and Samuel Miranda, another Venezuelan prospect who signed on his 16th birthday this past August. He'll play for the Rookie-Level DSL Red Sox in 2014.