October 30, 2013 at 8:00 AM
SoxProspects.com is counting down its season-end top 40 prospects, recapping their seasons and previewing what's ahead in 2014. You can find all of the entries in this year's series here.
#8: Blake Swihart, C
2013 Team: Salem Red Sox
Final Stats: 422 PA, .298/.366/.428, 2 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 41 BB, 63 SO; 42% caught stealing
Pre-2013: The 2011 draft was a strong one for the Red Sox; their first four picks all currently rank in the top eight in the SoxProspects.com rankings. This includes Swihart, whom the Red Sox selected with the 26th overall pick despite his strong commitment to the University of Texas. It took a $2.5 million bonus, the third-highest ever given out by the Red Sox to that point, to convince him to pass up college. He was drafted as a catcher despite being so athletic that his New Mexico high school team often played him all over the field, including at shortstop. That year he got only a small taste of professional baseball, playing in just two games for the GCL Red Sox after signing.
For his first full season, in 2012, the switch-hitting Swihart was assigned to Greenville, where he split catching duties for much of the year with fellow 2011 draftee Jordan Weems. As could be expected, he struggled at first, hitting .178/.253/.274 in April. After the adjustment period, Swihart began to produce results closer to the lofty expectations associated with a first round draft pick, hitting .284 the rest of the way. He finished with an overall line of .262/.307/.395. Swihart’s raw athleticism allowed him to throw out 31% of basestealers during the 2012 season, despite limited experience at the position. He finished the year as the seventh-ranked prospect on the SoxProspects.com rankings, not busting out by any stretch, but showing glimpses of the promise that led to his early selection.
2013 Season in Review: Swihart was assigned to the Salem Red Sox to open the 2013 season as the youngest player on the team. Unlike 2012, he got off to a solid start, recovering from an 0-for-7 in his first two games to hit .286/.365/.411 over the rest of April. After cruising through June 28 with a .290/.376/.455 line, he began to look like his heavier, full-time catching load was taking its toll.. As he matched his games caught total from 2012 on July 11, he was in the midst of a two-week rut, going just 7 for 46 over a 13-game stretch from June 29 to July 17. However, he pulled himself out, hitting .362/.404/.477 through the end of the season. He admittedly struggled at the plate in the Carolina League playoffs, going 1 for 17 in Salem’s five-game sweep to the Mills Cup Championship, but it did not detract from what was a hugely successful season.
Swihart saw some noticeable statistical improvements this year. He significantly increased his walk total from 26 in 2012 to 41 in 2013, while managing to keep his strikeout totals close to equal finishing with 63 in 2013 compared to 68 in 2012. His caught stealing rate saw a large jump up to 41%, good for second-best in the organization, and he improved his defense so much that the Red Sox named him the organization’s Minor League Defensive Player of the Year. Despite the ups and downs on the year, Swihart had the fifth-best average in the Carolina League and fourth-best in the Red Sox organization at .298. He also finished near the top of the Carolina League leaderboard in many offensive categories, including triples (sixth), slugging (eighth), OBP (10th), OPS (10th), and doubles (13th).
First-Hand Report and 2014 Outlook: Swihart answered plenty of questions and vaulted himself farther onto the radar than any other player in the system except Salem teammate Mookie Betts this season. The switch-hitting, 21-year-old catcher made the most strides with his glove—the athletic Swihart not only improved his receiving and blocking, but made great strides on the mental side of the position. Pitchers and coaches complimented his game-calling and understanding of the game throughout the season. Swihart, who is listed at just 175 pounds, did plenty to answer questions about whether he could hold up at the position for an entire season, but it still remains to be seen how he’ll cope with the amount of innings expected of a player of his pedigree.
With a bat in his hands, Swihart showed he was comfortable at both sides of the plate, though just over 20 percent of his plate appearances were from his natural right-handed side. Swihart’s hands get through the zone quickly, and his proclivity to spray line drives with backspin all over the field means he could add game power if he adds strength. It’s noteworthy, however, that the Carolina League tends to suppress power, especially at Salem’s home park.
Swihart will likely open the 2014 season in Double-A Portland, where a strong season would elevate him into a crowded collection of major league-ready catching in the Red Sox system. – Jon Meoli
Photo Credit: Blake Swihart by Kelly O'Connor