The stories of two elbows- one right, the other left- have arisen in Red Sox nation this week.
The one with the most immediate impact on the 2015 Red Sox is the right elbow of young catcher Christian Vazquez. He had earned the everyday catching job in what would be his first full big league season. Vazquez had grabbed this position based on his world class throwing arm and other excellent defensive skills including pitch framing, which is all the rage in baseball these days.
Vazquez has not played in a big league exhibition game since March 13, which almost went unnoticed for a week or so. But then it was announced he had missed time due to soreness in his throwing elbow. He had DH'd some and caught Joe Kelly in a intra squad minor league game the other day. Late this past week, Vazquez had an MRI on the elbow, and yesterday morning the catcher told the Boston media the MRI had "found something". The club confirmed this and Vazquez will get a second opinion. No more detail than this has been released. While no one is saying so publicly (other than Sea Dogs broadcaster Mike Antonellis, while working the Red Sox radio broadcast with Joe Castiglione yesterday), it sounds ominously as if Vazquez needs Tommy John surgery which would wipe out his 2015 campaign.
If it is a season ending injury, where does that leave the 2015 Red Sox at catcher? Barring a trade for a catcher (which I think is currently unlikely) there are three catchers currently in-house. Veterans Ryan Hanigan, Humberto Quintero, and rookie, #1 Red Sox prospect Blake Swihart.
Hanigan, an Andover, Massachusetts native, was acquired this winter from the Padres for Will Middlebrooks. He would become the starting catcher in all likelihood. Hanigan has a similar reputation as Vazquez, a defense first catcher with a so-so bat. In eight MLB seasons, all with the Reds except last year in Tampa Bay, Hanigan's career numbers for batting average and OPS are .256/.694. But for his career he has thrown out 38% of would be base stealers (in 2012 his first full time year with Cincy, Ryan threw 48% and 45% in '13). Hanigan could replace Vazquez on defense to a large degree with a similar offensive profile as well. The question is Hanigan's durability. In his eight years the only time he has caught more than 90 games is the aforementioned 2012 when he played 112. He is going to need help, at age 34 he is unlikely to become more durable.
Qunitero is also a big league veteran. The 35 year old has played parts of 12 seasons in the bigs, with a handful of teams. But in those 12 years he has played around 420 games, an average of about 35 a year. He too is all about the defense, he cannot hit with a lifetime BA/OPS of .234/.594. But Humberto, like Hanigan, can eliminate base thieves at a very acceptable career rate of 33%. It is likely Qintero was brought into the organization to back up and mentor Swihart at AAA or to replace Hanigan in case of injury. His role has changed.
The real debate in the Nation is over Blake Swihart, who turns 23 this coming Friday, April 3. Even John Farrell threw some gas on the fire mid-week when asked if Swihart, who has already been optioned to AAA, was automatically out of the picture if Vazquez would miss some time due to the option and he replied " We'll see".
If the Vazquez injury is not season ending, and let's say he is expected to miss only April, then letting Swihart split the job with Hanigan is a real possibility. But if Christian is out for the year, the Sox need to get Blake to Pawtuckt pronto, and let him catch regularly. Based on on his brief AAA appearance near the end of 2014, he needs more time there. In 2012 and 2013 the Red Sox left Swihart for entire seasons at Low A and High A. Last year, he spent nearly the whole season at Portland, before joining Pawtucket in August. There is no good reason to let Swihart come to the big leagues and be over his head. This would not help the '15 Sox or Swihart. Sitting behind Hanigan playing sparingly also is not beneficial to the kid catcher. Get him to AAA and by June or July he should have enough AAA experience to be really helpful coming down the stretch...just when Hanigan/Quintero may be running out of gas.
Two last thoughts on the young catchers. First, if there was any chance (and I think there was not) of Swihart being traded to Philly for Cole Hamels it is 100% over. He is staying.
Losing Vazquez for the entire 2015 has a chance to be very detrimental to Boston's 2015 title hopes, if Hanigan cannot step up. But it may be more personally harming to Vazquez' hopes of becoming the long term catcher in Boston. 2015 seemed like a head start for Vazquez over Swihart in a race to be that long term Bosox backstop. If his 2015 campaign evaporates and if Swihart takes the job during 2015, Vaz may end up as a backup or trade bait when healthy.
The other elbow only involves Boston potentially. But it may affect the draft war room in June very much.
Last year the first pick in the entire draft was a high school lefty pitcher named Brady Aiken. He had a $6.5M deal with Houston ( who else would have the first pick in recent years) all set to sign when the Astros expressed concern over some medicals and lowered their offer at the last moment before the signing deadline to $5M. The teenager left the five mil on the table and did not sign.
He chose not to attend college and instead went to IMG Academy, a sports oriented post grad school. This made Aiken eligible for the draft again this year. But a week or so ago, in his first IMG game, Aiken left after 13 pitches with soreness in his valuable left arm. A couple of days ago, Aiken himself announced he had undergone Tommy John surgery.
The question is, with the seventh overall pick for the second time in three years, would Boston draft a high school pitcher who is only 2 1/2 months removed from Tommy John surgery? The answer is a resounding MAYBE. The Sox had been connected to Aiken and had scouted his workouts this spring. There are three precedents in the drafts since 2012. In '12 Lucas Giolito was considered among the best players in the draft, but the high school right hander had TJ surgery during his senior year. He fell from the top of the draft to #16 where Washington grabbed him. Today he is ranked in the Top 10 prospects in all of baseball, and the Nats' top pitching prospect. Last year two high schoolers entered the draft after having recent Tommy John surgery: Jeff Hoffman and Erik Fedde. Fedde went again to Washington at 18, but Hoffman when even higher at #9.
Aiken is likely to be there at seven. Of the six picks before Boston, Houston has two at 2 and 5. No team can re-draft the same player without his permission. Aiken will not grant it. That leaves Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and the Twins ahead of Boston. None of those teams seem like the type to risk such a high draft pick on a injured player. So would Boston do it?
If Boston's pick was in the 15-20 range (like the two Washington picks were) it would be a no brainer. But is number seven too high to risk? When the Jays used a number nine on Hoffman, they had another pick at 12 so it was less of a risk. Due to the signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, Boston second pick in '15 is 81, then 111.
The pro side of the argument is Aiken is a overall number one pick type of player. With Boston's already deep system they could afford to wait a year or so for him. This could be Boston's only chance at this type of prospect in the draft for years to come.
And wouldn't be great to have an ace pitcher for the Sox named Brady!
This will be something to watch more when June approaches.