By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Blake Swihart wants out.
Well, more accurately, he wants to play baseball. That is, typically, a desire of most baseball players. And through 42 Red Sox games this season, Swihart has participated in just 15 of them. He’s started just four times. He’s stepped to the plate just 32 times, and he’s spent just 24 innings in the field. For a baseball player, that’s not a whole lot of baseball being played.
So, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Evan Drellich, Swihart’s agent is requesting that the Red Sox work out a trade that will allow Swihart to actually play baseball. Because clearly, it’s not happening in Boston.
And in an ideal world, the Red Sox would be able to grant that request, flipping the former highly touted prospect for an impact reliever to handle the eighth-inning role for the struggling Boston bullpen. In the wake of Carson Smith injuring himself, such a deal would seemingly be perfect for everyone involved.
But life isn’t perfect, and neither is baseball. The Red Sox getting any kind of reasonable return on Swihart is going to be a lot more difficult for Dave Dombrowski than one might initially expect. Why? Glad you asked. Here are two simple reasons, laid out in big bold typeface for all the folks who prefer scanning the page over reading all the words.
A Team Acquiring Swihart Is Still Just Acquiring The Potential Of Swihart
Blake Swihart is 26 years old. As baseball “prospects” go, he’s an old man. For comparison’s sake, the Yankees’ most recent hot catching prospect was Gary Sanchez. He’s now 25 years old and has belted 63 home runs and a .903 OPS in his 200-plus games at the big-league level. Swihart has hit five home runs and has a .689 OPS in his 124 games of big-league experience.
So he’s not quite a “prospect” anymore. And he’s not an established, everyday MLB player. He flashed as a 23-year-old in 2015, the way young prospects can do, when he batted .274 with decent power (17 doubles, one triple, five homers) when he played roughly half of an MLB season. Since then, though, he banged up his ankle sliding into a wall after the Red Sox asked him to play left field. The recovery took a very long time, and here we are. He’s 5-for-34 in the majors since the start of the 2017 season. He batted just .190 with a .539 OPS in Triple-A last year. And now, albeit in a very limited role, he’s sitting on the Boston bench with a .138 batting average. That’s the ninth-worst average in the American League among players with at least 25 plate appearances.
Any team that would acquire Swihart right now would be acquiring him for his theoretical potential alone. If he were 22 years old, that’s one thing. But a 26-year-old whom is not trusted by his team to catch and has minimal experience playing defensively anywhere else? That’s not exactly the type of player who can generate a huge return in a trade.
Teams Know That The Sox Have To Make A Deal
There’s something to be said about leverage. Leverage is likely the reason that Dombrowski said Tuesday that the bullpen is not an area of concern for his club. Never show your hand, baby!
And in the department of leverage with regard to Blake Swihart, the Red Sox seemingly have none. Dustin Pedroia has already begun his rehab assignment in Pawtucket, and he sounds like someone who’s eager to join the big league roster sooner than later.
When it comes time for Pedroia to occupy a roster spot, the Red Sox will have to make a corresponding move. Of course, they could make a short-term move to make it work for a week or two — say, putting a player who’s maybe dealing with some minor ailment on the disabled list for a 10-day rest. But at some point, the Red Sox are going to have to really clear that space off the roster. And even though Christian Vazquez has the fifth-worst OPS and Sandy Leon has the seventh-worst OPS in the American League (minimum 50 plate appearances), it seems pretty clear at this point of the year that Alex Cora and Dombrowski would look to Swihart as the player to move. (As everyone knows, Swihart is out of options and cannot be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers.)
And with that leverage lost, teams know they don’t really have to fork over anyone of value in order to acquire Swihart. The team that (theoretically) acquires Swihart will be a team only willing to pay a cost that is determined to be worth spending instead of just waiting and hoping to pick up the player on waivers. Though not at all an apples-to-apples comparison, all it cost the Reds last week to acquire Matt Harvey was Devin Mesoraco and cash. (Harvey accomplished much more at the MLB level than Swihart ever did, but was also three years older and was making a lot more money.)
The Bottom Line
There actually is no bottom line, but again, the bold type really helps in stories like these. Anyway, ultimately it feels like the Red Sox and Swihart are heading toward the end of their time together, and you can’t help but feel like Swihart’s Red Sox career will be remembered as a mismanaged asset for the organization.
Swihart in 2015 was a promising catching prospect who could hit. That’s a fairly rare commodity. Among AL catchers with at least 275 plate appearances, he ranked fifth in OPS. His .275 batting average was second-best, just two points behind Stephen Vogt’s .275 average. And Swihart was just 23 years old. The Red Sox really had something there.
But in 2016, the Red Sox didn’t bother to let Swihart catch (he spent just 52 innings behind the plate in 2016), instead dedicated the position to Leon and Vazquez. Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday spent more time catching than Swihart that year. The Red Sox told Swihart to learn a new position on the fly, and he promptly suffered an injury that basically cost him two seasons.
In spring training of 2018, Cora spoke of Swihart as a potential super-utility man, someone who could play the outfield, play corner infield positions, play a bit at second base, and still catch when needed. But through a month-and-a-half of the season, that role has never developed for Swihart, as Cora has opted to give more playing time to Brock Holt and even Tzu-Wei Lin.
Considering the talent and promise that Swihart displayed not long ago, he may well end up getting his feet under him with a new team and carry out a successful big league career. But don’t expect that potential to result in any grand return for the Red Sox in the coming weeks.