Catching battle depends on Vazquez's health

Backstop returning from Tommy John surgery, could reclaim job from Swihart

Catching battle depends on Vazquez's health

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- How much of a catching battle will there be between Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez?

That all depends on how Vazquez's surgically repaired right elbow is responding halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule.

Spring Training info

"We'll get more information once games begin, but we fully expect him to be in the mix or in the rotation once games begin," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "I think when we get to the midway point of the game schedule, we'll get a better read on how many times per week he'll be able to catch."

If, by that point, Vazquez is healthy enough to completely let it go on a regular basis, the intrigue could build until the final day of camp.

Right?

"Yeah, I think we have to get to that point first. I'm not trying to side-step the answer or your question," Farrell said. "I don't have all the information yet. I don't think any of us do until he goes through games and we see how he reacts to game situations, whether he comes out from behind the plate with throws to second base with no hesitation. And how does he come in the next day and feel physically? We've got some steps to go through first."

Complicating matters is that the Red Sox still have a capable veteran backup in Ryan Hanigan, who is out of Minor League options. That leaves three capable catchers for two roster spots.

"I think the biggest thing is if everybody's healthy and ready to go," Farrell said. "That remains to be seen, yet."

Vazquez underwent Tommy John surgery last April. Before that setback, he was the primary catcher for the Red Sox. Injuries to Vazquez and Hanigan allowed Swihart to come onto the scene as a rookie and take over the position down the stretch in 2015.

Now, Vazquez will try to reclaim the job.

"I'm doing my throwing program, throwing to the bases," Vazquez said. "I feel great. My arm feels good. I feel strong. My shoulder feels good. I'm excited to start the games and see how that feels. That's my goal, to be ready for Opening Day. Let's see."

Then there is Swihart, who spent most of last spring and summer learning and processing. This year, he's ready to apply it all.

"I'm a lot more comfortable," he said. "I got really comfortable at the end of last year. Taking that into this year is going to be good. Just going out there and having experience and being able to talk to the guys more frequently and just letting them know I want to be their guy and want them to be confident with me back there."

One key difference between Vazquez and Swihart is that the latter had to work hard to get on the same page with pitchers and to build their trust. For Vazquez, a gifted catcher with a cannon arm, that was established from the day he got to the Major Leagues.

"Oh man, it's so big for a pitcher when you can have that runner thrown out or get that back pick at first or second or third or whatever it is," Red Sox ace David Price said. "If you're out there for seven innings, that's 21 outs, and if your catcher can get you an out or two outs in a game, that's huge."

Price hasn't even thrown a side session to Vazquez yet, but he's heard so much about his prowess behind the plate.

"I've definitely heard. I've heard he has a really good arm, and just watching the way he receives the ball in bullpens, even though I haven't thrown one to him yet, just how he sticks everything, how he makes everything look good," Price said. "I've talked to a couple of guys who threw to him in Spring Training, and they talk about games they've made good pitches and he makes them look so much better. They get back to the dugout and look at it on film, and they're like, 'Wow, that ball is four or five inches off, but Vazqy just makes it look so good.' That's good."

Price on pitching in AL

As natural as Vazquez makes the catching look, that is what Swihart is at the plate. Last year, Swihart put his offense on the back burner as he completely immersed himself in what it took to run a Major League pitching staff. And once he got comfortable with that, his offense again flourished over the final few weeks of the season. But the jury is still out on whether Vazquez will hit enough to be a starting catcher in the Majors.

The debate started a couple of years ago over which one of these players would be the catcher of the future for the Red Sox, and it continues on.

"You look around the game, there are a lot of organizations that are looking for the type of players both guys are," Farrell said. "A lot was made of Blake's interest by other clubs last year -- was he going to remain here? Thankfully, he is here. But we're in a good position when those two guys are healthy and playing to their capabilities."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.