Could Christian Vazquez become Red Sox’ catcher of the future?
|08.07.13 at 7:07 am ET|
A familiar scene unfolded late last month at Fenway Park. It was a picturesque July afternoon, and after lineup introductions and the national anthem, the home team took to the field for the top of the first.
Settling in his spot behind the plate was a stocky catcher with a big, red “33” on his back.
But no, it wasn’t Jason Varitek. It was Christian Vazquez, a 22-year-old backstop for Double-A Portland who is heralded for his defense but whose bat remains a work in progress.
He was in town with the Sea Dogs, who played the Nationals’ Double-A affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators, in the annual “Futures at Fenway” game. For the 2008 ninth-round pick, it was a landmark event.
“It’s my first time playing here,” Vazquez said, noting he had visited for a physical when he signed in 2008 and again during the Red Sox’ rookie development program in January. “It’s fun, wearing the 33 [like] The Captain.”
The question now is whether that opportunity to start behind the plate at Fenway represented a future harbinger.
Vazquez finished the contest 1-for-4, his lone hit a grounder deep in the shortstop hole that he beat out. He didn’t throw out any runners, but he didn’t the chance to try, either. None of Harrisburg’s eight baserunners tested the arm of the man who has cut down half (41 of 82) of would-be stealers in 2013.
While that day wasn’t spectacular for Vazquez, it wasn’t terrible, either — much like his season on the whole. He is hitting .277 with a .366 OBP, .394 slugging mark and .760 OPS, a bit better than his career numbers of .260/.342/.394 and .736 in six minor league seasons.
According to Portland hitting coach Rich Gedman, Vazquez has made strides this year, part of which can be seen in his even strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has fanned 37 times and drawn 37 free passes, a far cry from his 79 strikeouts and 48 walks in 2012.
Vazquez is also hitting significantly better now — .364 since the mid-July All-Star Game, which he started for the East Division — than he did during a 20-game stint with Portland last year when he batted .205 with a .260 slugging mark.
Ben Crockett, the Red Sox’ director of player development, has certainly taken note.
“He’s done a nice job,” Crockett said. “He’s improved his control and command of the strike zone. He’s recognizing pitches. He’s staying in middle of the field a little more.
“He certainly has some raw pull power, and I think keeping his approach to the middle of the field doesn’t prevent that. It allows him to react to pitches in and to handle those off-speed pitches for pull power.”
Red Sox catching coordinator Chad Epperson, speaking on Minor Details last month, said a key to Vazquez’ offesnsive development is transferring the confidence he has behind the plate to his performance at it.
“There’s no doubt the bat is there, the ability to hit to all parts of the ballpark is there, it’s just getting this guy to trust it — and he will,” Epperson said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he will. He’s too good with the bat to not. He’s aware of it, and he works hard with it. The numbers will be there.”
One fault in Vazquez’ game is he sometimes tries too hard to generate bat speed with his body, according to Gedman. That leads to his swing being too long, which can snowball into him opening up his strike zone too much.
Typically, his short swing allows him to foul off good pitches or wait just an extra moment before swinging.
“It’s to his credit that he’s been working through it,” Gedman said. “It’s really kind of exciting to see because when he starts to repeat his swing over and over and over again, it’s one of those things where now he can listen to what his swing is doing and understand his effort level and what it takes to be consistent through the zone.”
Given his strong defense and progressing work at the plate, the ever-looming question is whether or not he will make it to — and stick in — the big leagues, particularly for the Red Sox.
Epperson says he can.
“He understands what it takes now to be the guy,” Epperson said. “We’re not talking [about] a guy [who is] a backup here, we’re talking a guy that has the ability to be a front line guy, and he understands that. … There’s nothing that he’s doing now in the last couple years that says he couldn’t be [a Gold Glover].”
The organization thought enough of him to add him to the 40-man roster last winter and to invite him to attend the team’s Rookie Development Program in January, a week-long camp that is usually reserved for the minor leaguers that the front office most expects to contribute at the major league level within the next 12 to 18 months. (This year, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster, Brock Holt, Steven Wright, Drake Britton — all of whom have gotten MLB time this season — were in attendance.)
Vazquez is also one of five catchers on the 40-man roster. Of the others, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a free agent when this season concludes, and David Ross, signed to be the backup but on the 60-day DL for the time being, will have one more year left on his deal.
Ryan Lavarnway, 25, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since his breakout 2011 campaign in which he hit .290 with a .939 OPS and 32 homers. Since his call-up to the big leagues in place of Ross, Lavarnway has seen limited playing time that raises questions about the Sox’ comfort with the idea of turning to him as a future everyday catcher should Saltalamacchia leave. Meanwhile, despite a recent outrageous hot streak at the plate for Triple-A Pawtucket, 26-year-old Dan Butler more likely projects as a big league backup than as a starter.
(The Red Sox also have Blake Swihart in Salem and 2013 draftee Jon Denney, both of whom are seen to have high ceilings but are further away from the big leagues.)
That leaves Vazquez.
“There’s absolutely a place for him as a defensive-oriented catcher [in the majors], and I think Christian has a chance to be a lot more than that,” Crockett said. “He can be an everyday major league catcher. He certainly brings the defensive skills to do that, and how much the bat progresses will prove to tell us how that will play in the big leagues.”
Crockett didn’t want to put any sort of timetable on when that might happen — at least, not publicly — but Gedman was a little more willing to comment on Vazquez’ MLB readiness.
“If somebody was willing to give him a chance, I know catching and throwing it, I think he’d be OK. Actually, I think he’d be very good,” Gedman said. “He’s close. If somebody was willing to give him a chance, I think he’d handle himself just fine.”
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