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March 11, 2014 at 7:39 AM

System Restart 2014, Pt. 1: Catchers

With Spring Training underway and minor league opening day approaching, we’ll be previewing the 2014 season in our System Restart series, a position-by-position look at the state of the Red Sox minor league system. In this new feature, we will assess the depth at each position and highlight the players to follow entering the year at each spot in the field. Today, our first installment covers the catchers.

Position in a Nutshell: The system is top-heavy at catcher. It’s heavy in major league talent in the upper minors, but a space in the lower minors for the next wave to step up.

Burning Questions
Is Jon Denney ready for a full-season affiliate? - At one point, Denney was thought to have among the best power potential in the 2013 draft, but reports near the end of his senior high school season and start to his pro career focused on how raw he was both offensively and defensively. One would hope a player ranked among the top 50 draft prospects would be ready for Greenville, but the reports make one wonder if he might get held back for Lowell. Projection: Greenville

Where does Ryan Lavarnway fit? - There's more on this below, but with Lavarnway getting work at first base this spring, the writing is on the wall that he is getting squeezed out of the picture at catcher by the next two guys highlighted here. Projection: Pawtucket

Who to watch
Top Prospect: Blake Swihart, Projection: Portland – Swihart (pictured, above right) established himself as a top-100 prospect after a strong season both offensively and defensively with Salem. He alleviated any questions about his ability to handle the position long term, stemming from his being relatively new to the position having only picked it up late in high school, showing off improved receiving, blocking, and game-calling skills. Though his stat line at the plate does not jump off the page, he also made strides there, showing an improved approach and a potential above-average-to-plus hit tool. Swihart has yet to show much in-game power, but he has shown the ability to drive the ball with backspin in the gaps. As he gains strength, some of those doubles—29 of them in 2013—should turn into home runs.

Stock rising: Christian Vazquez, Projection: Pawtucket – Vazquez (pictured, left) continued to improve defensively in 2013, and has now firmly established himself as one of the top defensive catching prospects in all of baseball. Vazquez’s throwing ability is borderline elite, combining a plus-to-better arm with a quick release and smooth footwork. His receiving and blocking skills took a step forward last season, but he can still get a little sloppy behind the plate, showing a tendency to cheat a little bit with runners on base in order to put himself in a better position to throw the runner out. With his defensive profile, Vazquez will not have to hit much to be a major leaguer, but he also has shown potential in the batter’s box, combining a solid approach with strong contact skills.

Sleeper: Dan Butler, Projection: Pawtucket – Though he went undrafted—in fact, Butler was never even Arizona’s starting catcher during his three years playing for the Wildcats—Butler has proven to be much more than organizational filler in the pros. Though he does not have a first-division ceiling, Butler profiles as a potential long-term backup option with strong defensive skills and the ability to hit for some pop. Butler will likely be the first catcher to get a call should something happen to either A.J. Pierzynski or David Ross.

At a crossroads: Ryan Lavarnway, Projection: Pawtucket – Entering his final option year, 2014 will be a make-or-break season for Lavarnway (pictured, right). His bat, which was supposed to be his carrying tool, regressed in 2013. The power potential he showed when he was first rising through the system was almost non-existent. Lavarnway struggled getting his bat through the zone to make solid contact, especially against plus velocity, instead seeming to shorten up and focus on making contact, especially to right field. If Lavarnway can rediscover his ability at the plate, he still profiles as a major leaguer with the versatility to play below-average defense at catcher, first base and designated hitter. If what Lavarnway has shown the last two years is what he is now, then he could be in a fight to keep his spot on the roster as soon as this spring.

On the radar
Jordan Weems, Projection: Salem – Has not shown much of anything offensively since an aggressive assignment to Greenville in 2012, his first full year in the system, posting a .204/.301/.244 line in two seasons at the level.
Jake Romanski, Projection: Greenville – Has a small frame and was limited to only 20 appearances last season due to injury.
Danny Bethea, Projection: Lowell – Has an idea of what to do at the plate, but fringy bat speed and a long swing limit his future projection. Strong arm, but slow release limits ability to control the running game.
David Sopilka, Projection: Greenville – Showed off the makings of a strong defensive skill set with Lowell last season, handling the pitching staff very well and controlling the running game. Very limited offensive ability and upside, however, limits future projection.
Alixon Suarez, Projection: Lowell – Good catcher’s frame, and has shown raw power in batting practice, but it has yet to translate to game action stateside.
Jhon Nunez, Projection: GCL – Probably not worth thinking about much yet after an uninspiring DSL campaign, but notable for winning the organization’s Base Stealer of the Month award for June 2013.


The club believes enough in Vazquez and Swihart that they signed Pierzynski to a one-year deal, leaving the future at the position in the majors wide open.

Boston: A.J. Pierzynski (pictured, left), David Ross
Pawtucket: Christian Vazquez, Dan Butler, Ryan Lavarnway
Portland: Blake Swihart, Matt Spring, Michael Brenly/Jayson Hernandez
Salem: Jordan Weems, Carson Blair, Tim Roberson
Greenville: Jon Denney, Jake Romanski, David Sopilka
Lowell: Alixon Suarez, Danny Bethea
GCL: Jhon Nunez, Simon Gravel
DSL: Isaias Lucena, Pablo Urena, Samuel Miranda, Roldani Baldwin
Taxi Squad: Leonel Escobar, Miguel Rodriguez, Carlos Coste
Military List: J.T. Watkins

Note: our projections in this series will be a rough estimate, based more on where the players are likely to begin the year based on their skill level. Roster concerns, which we will not account for, could always push players up or down a level. Other issues, such as injuries—real or "real"— could also affect level assignments.

Photo Credit: Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez, Ryan Lavarnway, and A.J. Pierzynski by Kelly O'Connor

Ian Cundall is the Director of Scouting of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.
Chris Hatfield is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.