Red Sox

How Blake Swihart is 'working his ass off,' and why he hasn't asked for a trade

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How Blake Swihart is 'working his ass off,' and why he hasn't asked for a trade

BOSTON — Blake Swihart has been praised for his athleticism his whole career, yet he hasn’t started anywhere but designated hitter this season. The Red Sox’ catching corps of Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon had the worst OPS in the majors (.417) entering Thursday, but Swihart had not seen a single frame behind the plate until the Red Sox trailed the Rangers 11-5 in the eighth inning Thursday. He wasn’t even asked to pinch run this week, when, after catching 13 innings and playing poorly on defense, the slower Christian Vazquez singled and represented the potential tying run.

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Swihart, 26, is older than Mookie Betts. Swihart is not a journeyman lucky to have a job. He’s a first-round pick with a ceiling unknown, someone who's been agreeable to position changes, perhaps to the detriment of his career arc. He's a prospect who would be getting playing time on other big league teams. 

"Some days are easier than others. Some days it’s tough," Swihart told NBC Sports Boston. "But you know, I just got to keep my head up and keep doing what I’m doing to stay ready."

Even though he is on a winning team, Swihart would have reasonable grounds to walk into manager Alex Cora's office and ask for a trade. He hasn't.

“I don’t think that you do that,” Swihart said. “That’s my agent’s job to call and do that, you know? Me personally, the player, this is all I know, is the Red Sox. I know there’s other teams that probably tried to call and there’s stuff moving. But I’m not the type of person that’s just going to walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m not playing, so get rid of me.’ I mean, I want this team to win, and when I’m here, I want to be able to help contribute any way I can.”

Swihart’s agency declined to comment.

The situation is bizarre. Major league depth options are rarely stashed on a major league roster, outside of the occasional Rule 5 draft pick. Swihart cannot grow if he does not play, and the Sox’ refusal to catch him until Thursday with Marcus Walden on the mound sent a message elsewhere: they feel his receiving ability is so far from ready that he's not worth even a sniff as Vazquez and Sandy Leon perform horribly at the plate. (Vazquez has had some woes defensively, as well.)

“I think they do want to move him, just not for 75 cents on the dollar,” one scout said. “And right now, if you can’t get him on the field, you can’t expect full value."

To some around the game watching Swihart’s progress, the fact he was the starting DH and then got behind the dish Thursday in Arlington was, at best, a fine coincidence.

It's showcase time. The Rangers would be a fit for Swihart after showing interest in him this offseason, if not more recently. More eyes from any team on Swihart at this point could be useful, assuming the Sox are not going to budge from the Vazquez-Leon tandem. Because the clock is ticking. Dustin Pedroia’s expected return within a month time might force the Sox’ hand sooner rather than later.

"I hope Swihart only signed a lease through May," another scout said.

The question boils down to this: Where does Swihart stand defensively? Everyone knows he’s working on his receiving, after converting to catcher when he was drafted in the first round in 2011. He lost time to a move to left field and then injury in 2016, followed by continued health troubles in 2017.

“I feel like if I get thrown back there I’m going to be ready,” Swihart said, speaking before the trip to Texas. “I think I’ll be just fine if I do. You know, I have confidence in myself to do it.”

He’s doing a ton to prove that readiness in the ways he can.

One of Chad Epperson, the Sox' catching coordinator, or  Jason Varitek is always around Fenway, for the benefit of Swihart and all the major league backstops. As Epperson put it, Swihart is working his ass off.

“I think you get best when you’re playing the game,” Swihart said. “Me not playing, I’m still tired every day when I go home, because I do so much extra work. I’m not just catching. Like, I’ll catch for an hour and a half and then I’ll go and do infield for 30 minutes. And then outfield drills. And then I’ll go hit extra, and hit off a machine. Like, I’m tired by the end of the day. I think I’m getting a lot of work in, good work. But I think you get better playing the game."

The daily work catching in lieu of game action might add up to a half hour. That may sound like a small amount, but it's not. There are 8-10 minutes doing the throwing program with a pitcher, and then 20 minutes, perhaps, with a focus on a skill. They won’t work on blocking and footwork on the same day, typically. Epperson and Varitek know the season is long, and there's a lot to process mentally and physically. Swihart goes to the same meetings the other catchers do. He watches the game calling unfold from the bench as well.

“Just the receiving part is probably the biggest thing for me,” Swihart said. “It’s probably receiving and learning to anticipate the ball in the dirt. So we’ll do a bunch of stuff: we’ll have 10 balls, and [Epperson or Varitek] might throw some in the air, and he might throw some in the dirt. I react to it. Because you’re anticipating a ball in the dirt. Then, if it’s in the air, you got to catch it the right way so you get a called strike and get a good presentation to the umpire.

“If you’re in a good position to receive the baseball, you put yourself in the best position to get down and block too, you know what I mean? Every catcher has a trigger with their glove. If their trigger’s off or late, then they’re going to be late to the ball too."

Not every franchise keeps a catching instructor around the big league team with the frequency the Red Sox do. Former minor league catcher Dana LeVangie, now the pitching coach, carried double duty when he was the bullpen coach, handling the catchers as well. LeVangie still works with them, but the pitchers are his priority. Varitek and Epperson have daily conversations about their work with the catchers, to keep the messaging unified between two different voices that alternate visits. 

In the past, Swihart’s mechanics could get long.

“Leaving spring training, we had a plan to continue to work on some direction with his footwork when throwing,” Epperson said. “Making sure that we stay in tune with the throwing program. Obviously, with [Swihart playing] multiple positions the arm speed’s different, making sure we’re on top of that. But fundamentally, you know we’re really getting him in a good base, and he feels comfortable."

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Epperson said Swihart has really good hands. Swihart catches some side sessions thrown by starters, and he’ll occasionally catch pitchers warming up in the 'pen, as well.

“It’s about getting the relationship with these guys and understanding what each and every one of these pitchers’ ball does,” Epperson said. “Some sliders are a little sharper than others, some velos better. So that’s where he’s taken the time and working on it, and taking the initiative to go out and catch the sides."

Nonetheless, side sessions are just side sessions. When LeVangie was asked what one or two areas behind the plate Swihart could use the most improvement, he pointed to the elephant in the room.

“It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that,” LeVangie said. “Because realistically, he needs to play. If somebody wants him as a catcher, he needs to play. He needs to play through failure, he needs to play through success, he needs to get comfortable. And the only way to do it is to play. And for him to figure it out behind the plate, the only way to get more comfortable is more reps. He can get better in every facet. 

"So can Sandy, so can Vazqy. Every day it’s a new learning process for them. Just because, as soon as you take things for granted, something will slap you in the ass. That’s how their job is."

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Travis Shaw says return to Boston Red Sox 'makes sense on paper'

Travis Shaw says return to Boston Red Sox 'makes sense on paper'

After being non-tendered by the Milwaukee Brewers, could a return to the Boston Red Sox be in order for Travis Shaw?

With Mitch Moreland hitting free agency, the Red Sox should be in the market for a left-handed-hitting first baseman. That makes Shaw an obvious fit, and the 29-year-old agrees a reunion with Boston would make sense.

Shaw discussed the situation with Rob Bradford on WEEI's Bradfo Sho podcast

"I got non-tendered this week. It was kind of a hard decision. The Brewers did offer me but I decided I kind of wanted a fresh start and was willing to risk to see what was out there free agent-wise," Shaw told Bradford. "Just wanted a fresh start after everything that happened last year. Like you said, [signing with the Red Sox] makes sense on paper now we’ll see with who else call or what other teams call. That’s kind of what we’re sorting through now. We’ve had quite a bit of interest so far over this week which is an encouraging sign for me. We’ll just go from there."

Before the 2017 season, the Red Sox traded Shaw to the Brewers in the deal that brought reliever Tyler Thornburg to Boston. In his first two years with Milwaukee, Shaw was an integral part of the offense with 30+ home runs and an OPS well above .800. Last season, however, Shaw missed some time with a wrist injury and saw his production dip significantly.

Assuming Shaw can return to the type of player we saw in '17 and '18, he makes for an intriguing option for Boston in free agency. Along with his potential at the plate, Shaw brings versatility to the table as he can adequately play multiple positions.

Right-handed sluggers Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec currently are the Red Sox' options at first base. Chavis was solid in his 2019 rookie campaign, and Dalbec enters 2020 as one of the organization's top prospects.

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MLB rumors: Winter meetings preview - Five Red Sox moves to watch as offseason begins in earnest

MLB rumors: Winter meetings preview - Five Red Sox moves to watch as offseason begins in earnest

The start of baseball's offseason has included some thank-the-lord movement, with a second-tier starter (Zack Wheeler) landing a $118 million deal from the Phillies and the hyperactive Rays dealing away a stalwart outfielder (Tommy Pham), much to the chagrin of ace Blake Snell.

With baseball's annual winter meetings beginning on Sunday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, all eyes will be on Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox, who have yet to make a major move, but will soon be on the clock.

So, what can we expect? Here are five areas of focus.

1. IS THERE A MOOKIE BETTS TRADE?

The Red Sox would be crazy not to consider deals for Betts if they believe he intends on reaching free agency, which he has made clear both publicly and privately over the last two years. They'd be crazier to give him away for nothing, however, and thus begins the dance of the offseason. The question they must answer is, "How much is too little?" and then draw a line in the warning-track sand. Potential trade partners like the White Sox and Braves have already spent aggressively, which means a Betts deal likely needs to happen sooner than later, since whomever acquires him must fit $28 million into their 2019 payroll and pretty soon that money will start disappearing. One team to watch: the Dodgers, who have money to spend, prospects to trade, and a World Series hill to climb after three straight near-misses.

2. DEALING DAVID PRICE

Chris Sale just started throwing, per WEEI.com, and his five-year, $145 million extension kicks in on Opening Day. Selling low on the potentially dominant left-hander is a recipe for regret, especially since his contract could end up being pretty reasonable if he returns to health. The better trade candidate is Price, who turns 35 in August and has three years and $96 million remaining on a contract that's more likely to provide diminishing returns, but paradoxically includes fewer short-term questions. We laid out the case for Price being an actual trade asset on Thursday; as free agent pitchers leave the market, someone will be left short, and maybe Price becomes a target.

3. FINDING A STARTER (OR TWO)

Trading Price may ease the financial crunch on a team hoping to drop below the $208 million luxury tax threshold, but it will blow another hole in a rotation that's already down one starter with the presumed departure of free agent Rick Porcello. The Red Sox obviously won't be in on Astros ace Gerrit Cole or Nationals World Series hero Stephen Strasburg. They also can't afford Madison Bumgarner or maybe even old friend Wade Miley. Will they go the opener route? Take a flier on a reclamation project like Felix Hernandez or Michael Wacha? Try to turn center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. into a starter? Here's where Bloom's creativity will be put to the test.

4. SURPRISE US

Until he starts dealing, Bloom remains an enigma. He's beholden to no one on the roster, a position which allowed predecessor Dave Dombrowski to cut ties with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez while they were still owed money. Could Bloom decide a roster overhaul is in order and use a supposed foundational piece like All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts or outfielder Andrew Benintendi to swing a larger deal? We may start to get some clarity on his thoughts next week.

5. RIGHT SIDE OF THE INFIELD

At this time last year, the Red Sox were foolishly counting on 125 games out of second baseman Dustin Pedroia (he played six) and 162 out of a first base platoon of Mitch Moreland (91) and Steve Pearce (29). While some portion of either job could go to second-year slugger Michael Chavis, the Red Sox will be in the market for help at first and second, and this is a spot where Bloom helped unearth some legit finds in Tampa, from Carlos Pena to Logan Morrison to Ji-Man Choi. There should be no shortage of affordable options at first, in particular, from Justin Smoak to Travis Shaw to C.J. Cron.

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