By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — No player in recent memory has been forced to have as unique a career as Blake Swihart.
Still just 25 years old, Swihart has been asked to display some pretty dynamic versatility in his young career. In high school and in Team USA’s under-18 team, he pitched and played shortstop, first base and left field. But he converted full time to catching and quickly became one the top-ranked prospects in all of baseball as a catcher in the Red Sox system, after Boston drafted him in the first round of the 2011 draft. The Red Sox, however, needed outfield help in 2016 and thus sent Swihart out to left field. He promptly injured his ankle badly while trying to make a catch against the wall in foul territory at Fenway.
Swihart logged just six MLB games in 2017 and just over 50 games at the Triple-A level in working himself back from the injury.
Now, with Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon occupying the team’s catching spots, Swihart is being asked to take on a new challenge: second base.
New manager Alex Cora said that the team will challenge Swihart to show some abilities as an infielder at multiple spots this spring, because his versatility and his plus bat could be a key element to the 2018 squad.
“He’s an athlete. I think versatility plus being athletic is a plus to any team. And there’s a guy that when he’s right, he swings the bat well. So you’ll see him in spring training in different positions. Looking forward to seeing him perform,” Cora said this week in Fort Myers. “The ground ball part, he asked, ‘Where should I take ground balls?’ It doesn’t matter. Go to one spot. I just want you to move your feet, and we’ll go from there. But we’re going to challenge him. And he’s up to the challenge.”
Cora added: “Blake is a guy that obviously has gone through his ups and downs health-wise. We know where he’s at. He’s healthy. Very important. He’s going to catch, he’s actually taking ground balls.”
While Cora noted that Swihart will take some ground balls at third and play multiple positions, the spot where he figures to potentially be most useful to the Red Sox is at second base. Rafael Devers figures to be penciled in at third base for his first full major league season. Meanwhile at second, Dustin Pedroia’s status for the start of the season remains in question after he underwent offseason knee surgery. Cora committed to Pedroia being the full-time second baseman once he’s healthy, but the manager seemed to suggest that he’s making some contingency plans for the early part of the year.
“We got options,” Cora said. “Going back to Swihart, we’ve got a bunch of guys that are very athletic. Some are righties, some are lefties, good defensive players, guys that are versatile enough that we can move some guys around. Obviously the spring is going to determine when that happens, and health obviously. But I feel very comfortable with the guys that we have.”
Cora was asked specifically if Swihart is “in the mix” at second base.
“I see Swihart in the mix of the Red Sox, of the 25-man roster,” Cora replied. “He’s a guy that, offensively he’s a plus, and he’ll bring versatility to our roster.”
In Swihart’s case, he’s a switch hitter, which might give him a leg up on competitors for the spot like Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez. Holt is coming off a season in which he batted just .200 with a .305 on-base percentage. Hernandez showed some promise in limited action before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
Though Swihart struggled mightily at the plate in Triple-A last year (.190/.246/.292) while working back from injury, Cora and the Red Sox are likely looking back at his numbers from 2015, when as a 23-year-old major league rookie he maintained a .274 average and a .712 OPS in 300-plus big league plate appearances. In 87 minor league plate appearances that year, he batted .321.
It’s that type of ability to put the bat on the ball that’s likely giving the Red Sox some optimism for Swihart’s ability to rack up some hits and drive in some runs. And it says quite a bit about Cora’s belief in Swihart’s athleticism that he is confident that the 25-year-old can pick up a new position and play it a major league level over the course of one spring training.
It’s just the latest curveball thrown Swihart’s way in what has been a very busy seven-year professional career. But with a chance to cement a roster spot as an early-season contributor at multiple positions, it may be his best shot yet.