July 10, 2014
The Situation: A.J. Pierzynski and the Red Sox seemed like a nice fit over the winter, but neither his season nor Boston's season went as planned. Pierzynski’s free-swinging ways clashed with the selective lineup Ben Cherington assembled, and his glove was a weakness. As a result, the team grew increasing frustrated with the veteran backstop, leading to whispers that the Sox were contemplating jettisoning him as early as April. With Boston's catching prospects having fine seasons in the minors, the Sox finally pulled the plug on Pierzynski on Wednesday, calling up 23-year-old catcher Christian Vazquez. Vazquez’s breakout year at Pawtucket has tempted Boston to make this move for some time, and the hope is that he can inject a new energy with his impact defensive skills.
Background: The Red Sox took Vazquez in the ninth round of the 2008 draft out of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and signed him for an $80,000 bonus. Even with a top-10-round grade, Vazquez was seen as a project on both sides of the ball, and his short, stout frame gave rise to concerns about his body, though those liabilities can sometimes turn into assets behind the plate in terms of durability. At the plate, Vazquez’s small frame isn't conducive to power. His bat speed isn’t a strength either, and swing-and-miss has been a big issue. Vazquez has always been able to throw, but the rest of his defensive game lagged behind. Concerns about his glove were such that in the low minors he saw time at third base, with a smattering of appearances at first and second. Over the last couple years, however, he's addressed many of these doubts.
The Scouting: Any discussion of Vazquez begins with his arm. I asserted in April that Vazquez was "the best-throwing catcher in professional baseball right now, and it's not particularly close." Many scouts have described him to me as having one of the best arms they've ever seen, and have eagerly anticipated the crazy pop times Vazquez would show them in Pawtucket.
However, while Vazquez has a plus arm, he lacks top-of-the-scale raw arm strength, and perhaps there's a lesson in that for young catchers. Vazquez nails baserunners as much with his feet as with his arm. Much like fellow cannon-armed Puerto Rican catcher Ivan Rodriguez (a player Vazquez reportedly idolizes), Vazquez has lightning-quick feet behind the plate. He gets out of the crouch in the blink of an eye, and the ball often arrives 5-10 feet before would-be basestealers. His pop times are routinely at or below 1.90, and I've had him as high as 1.74. (I've also clocked him at 1.78 twice, and stories abound of similar readings.)
Vazquez’s snap throws to first and third are as much fun to watch as his throwdowns. Baserunners would be well advised to keep their heads up and not wander too far, even with their secondary lead. Vazquez is a weapon behind the plate who completely shuts down the opposing team's running game. With a wave of his arm he turns the basepaths to quicksand.
While the arm is an "8," the rest of Vazquez’s defensive game has emerged as plus over the last year. His quick feet didn't always translate to good blocking and lateral movement. The tools and athleticism have always been there, but for whatever reason he exhibited some sloppy actions while in the lower levels that he's finally fixed. His receiving is marked by soft hands and strong framing skills. There was some sentiment (as there was with Pudge) that Vazquez would at times sandbag his pitcher by calling for too many fastballs with runners on base. Pitchers have indeed been happier throwing to him this year, and those problems appears to be behind him. None of this is unusual to see in a catcher honing his craft in the minors.
While this would all typically make for a fantastic backup catcher profile, the bat has begun to impress scouts to a greater degree. Vazquez has a short, quick, contact-oriented stroke, and he sprays the ball to all fields and into both gaps. His best asset at the plate is his selective approach; while he will whiff, he controls the strike zone well. He does not possess premium bat speed, and good velocity gives him problems, so he can be pitched inside with fastballs. For all his patience, he is sometimes prone to chasing good spin low and away when he's behind in the count.
I didn't think power was going to be part of Vazquez’s game at all, but he's convinced me that he will be at least a 35-grade power guy. In batting practice the righty increasingly shows good pop to his pull side, and in games he’s gotten better and better at jumping on mistakes and hammering them, too. He's a strong kid, and I think he's capable of 7-10 homers a year (perhaps more in his prime). The extra-base hits will be there. One downside is that Vazquez is a very poor straight-ahead runner, which will turn some doubles into singles.
One comp I've heard from multiple scouts is Carlos Ruiz. The two have somewhat similar builds, and there is some sentiment that Vazquez's power might blossom late like Chooch's did. I do harbor some concern that he’ll wear down after taking a beating behind the plate, because he’s looked a little sluggish in recent viewings. That could be a great excuse for the organization to regularly mix and match Vazquez and Blake Swihart in future years. Ultimately, Vazquez is a first-division catcher, but a glove-first one—an impact defender who can contribute with the bat. With his frame, patience, and excellent glove, Vazquez is virtually Pierzynski’s opposite in almost every way. He's also an immediate upgrade, and I'm convinced that he can be the primary backstop for a playoff team.
Immediate Impact: The switch from Pierzynski to Vazquez could pay quick dividends with Boston's pitching staff. There is a strong chance that Boston's playoffs hopes are already gone, though, which gives Vazquez a chance to acclimate to the big-league lifestyle and clubhouse without some of the pressure that comes with a pennant race (and also gives the staff an opportunity to evaluate him). It's probably unfair to expect much from him at the plate in 2014, but it’s likely that his defense will win him rave reviews this season and a chance to be the primary catcher in 2015 and beyond. —Al Skorupa
Fantasy Impact: Vazquez is a perfect example of a prospect who has more value in real life than for fantasy purposes. Even though he was one of the better catching prospects in the game, he never sniffed a dynasty top-100 list, and he probably wouldn't have made any top-150 lists either. Glove-first catchers with marginal offensive ceilings simply aren't worth that much, even in deep dynasty leagues. In TDGX, for example—a league that rosters 800-plus players—Vazquez is unowned, as are the likes of Rene Rivera, Brayan Pena, Nick Hundley and Martin Maldonado.
Unfortunately, that's probably the type of offensive performance we can expect from Vazquez right away. His offensive upside this season probably looks something like .260/.310/.350, which is as unexciting as it sounds. The good news, however, is that even a performance along those lines would likely solidify a starting spot for Vazquez next year, and this is a player who's shown an ability to make adjustments and hit better as he's moved up the ladder. His progress may be slow and steady, as it is with many catchers, but there's reason to hope that he could be a top-20 option in his prime years.
Right now, however, he should be unowned in just about every league. There's a little more wiggle room for adding him in AL-only leagues, as he should see the majority of starts behind the plate for the Red Sox for the balance of the season. David Ross is 37 going on 52, and the only other competition Vazquez faces is Dan Butler, so Vazquez is a safe bet for around 200 plate appearances this year, even if Ross catches about 40 percent of Boston’s remaining games.
It's not sexy, but there's not a lot of premium catching talent that's close to the majors. Vazquez probably isn’t as “good” an offensive prospect as Austin Hedges, but he's not that far from it. Plus, he'll be in a more favorable ballpark and has beaten Hedges to the punch. Don't spend FAAB on him unless you're truly desperate, but keep him in mind in deep dynasty and AL-only leagues as a potential second catcher or injury replacement. —Ben Carsley
Al Skorupa is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @alskor