The 2016 season is young, but as usual the Boston Red Sox have found ways to fill it with drama. The bullpen has been somewhat shaky, while the starting rotation seems to be finally settling into a groove. Brandon Magee fills us in on the changing faces of the Boston Red Sox roster after a flurry of transactions.
With a series of moves last week, the Boston Red Sox changed 25% of their non-pitching roster. While the disabling of Pablo Sandoval was made because of an injury, two other moves featured healthy players being shipped to Pawtucket. How did these moves transform the club and what does it mean for the future of Rusney Castillo and Blake Swihart?
4/14: OF Rusney Castillo optioned to Pawtucket
What it means for the Red Sox
Before the series of moves, the Red Sox starting nine had been a repetitive sequence of lineups. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez, and Dustin Pedroia had appeared in every game. Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo had each started a single game. This was not a huge problem initially coming out of spring training with two off days scheduled out of the first eleven. However, the Red Sox are now in the midst of seventeen straight games and a day off for nearly everyone is on the agenda.
The initial move of Josh Rutledge may have been a surprise to some, afterall, he was not on the 40-man roster. However, moving Brandon Workman – who is still rehabbing from last season’s surgery – to the 60-man DL is an easy move without consequence for the Red Sox. Rutledge, primarily a middle infielder during his career, has added third base to his repertoire over the past three seasons. More importantly, the 26-year-old is a multi-year MLB veteran, he is not in the minor leagues for developmental reasons. Being a backup infielder at the major-league level is his role with the organization.
The second part of the infield equation was the promotion of Hernandez. Marco has primarily been a shortstop in his minor-league career, but moved around the infield last season when promoted to Pawtucket. Marco batted .286/.375/.429 in the first six games of the season in AAA, and that quick start led to getting the call over Deven Marrero (.576 OPS) and Sean Coyle (.315 OPS).
With two utility infielders in the Boston fold, Brock Holt is now the starting left fielder… and nothing more. No longer will Holt be a starting OF and the primary utility infielder. Hernandez will likely see time spotting Bogaerts and Pedroia with Rutledge substituting for Shaw and Ramirez. The versatility of the starting OF – Holt, Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are capable of playing all three OF positions – allows the Red Sox to substitute Chris Young for any of the starters.
The switch of catchers is, perhaps, harder to decode. Swihart’s year began decently at the plate with a .391 OBP at the time of his demotion, and he was the starting catcher in six of the eight games played. While there were some shaky defensive moments early on – with three passed balls in six games – it is still early in the season and errors happen.
That being said, while Swihart’s defensive reputation has risen as he progressed through the system, Christian Vazquez’s reputation has been stellar for as long as he has been a prospect. As the presumptive starting catcher last season, before Tommy John surgery took him out in spring training, his ascendancy back to the starting position in Boston may simply have been contingent on proving his health.
While a three-game sample is far too early to make any true determination of quality; after all, Vazquez picked up two passed balls on Monday, Rick Porcello was effusive in his praise of Vazquez after Friday’s outing:
I can’t say enough about the job Christian did back there. Blocking balls, calling the game, he was tremendous.
He’s captain on the field. That’s what that position calls for and he brings that.
While the importance of defense vs. offense at any position is highly debatable, it appears that the Red Sox have chosen to go with the more defensively savvy catcher at this point. It should be noted that Vazquez started the season hot at the plate as well, with a 1.188 OPS in his first five games in Pawtucket and was a .267/.347/.393 hitter for his minor-league career. As an excellent defensive catcher, that’s not a bad line.
The Injured and the Demoted
Pablo Sandoval had clearly been a forgotten man this season, going 0-for-6 with a walk in three games played and only one start. Absent injury, Sandoval would still have been sitting on the bench waiting for Travis Shaw to slump. However, an MRI on Panda’s shoulder has him seeking a second opinion with Dr. James Andrews, words that rarely portend good news. The immediate future is certainly uncertain for Sandoval.
Castillo, the presumptive starting left fielder coming into spring training, not only lost his job to Holt, but also slipped behind Chris Young to become the fifth outfielder on the team. Deprived of valuable playing time – with only a single game played for Boston – a trip to Pawtucket will at the very least see Castillo playing everyday. Despite Castillo’s age, he is very much in need of development time since he lost years after defecting from Cuba. While Castillo may now be considered a trade chip for Boston, he is currently the only healthy OF on the 40-man roster in the minor league system. Any injury by a Boston outfielder will see Castillo back up, more than likely as a starter. Until then, at least he will be playing regularly.
Blake Swihart was not supposed to be with the Red Sox last season. Injury forced the team to promote him despite fewer than 40 games at AAA Pawtucket. Swihart clearly showed his offensive potential last season, batting .303/.353/.452 after his return from his DL stint in July until the end of the season. However, his demotion appears to be about the team’s preference for defense. Blake did not do anything wrong, the organization just prefers Vazquez as the starting backstop. Considering his age (just turned 24) and pedigree (1st Round Draft Pick / Top 20 MLB prospect coming into 2015), it only makes sense for him to get as many at bats as possible, which is not going to happen as the backup backstop. Given chatter about utilizing Swihart in different positions in Pawtucket, it appears that the Red Sox may be looking to get his bat back to the majors as soon as possible.
While there may be a sense of shock that Castillo’s $12 million salary has been sent to AAA, the promotions of Hernandez and Rutledge provide the Red Sox much more flexibility. In addition to not relying on Brock Holt to be the sole backup for all the infield positions, they now have the flexibility to give days off – whether scheduled or because of minor injuries – to multiple infielders at the same time.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have a catcher in Vazquez who may well be a net positive contributor through his defense alone. While certain qualities of a pitcher-catcher relationship cannot be measured, hearing the type of praise that has been heaped on Vazquez (and, the results of the starters in his first three starts) is certainly a harbinger of good things to come.
Just as important, Castillo and Swihart are literally just down the road. A simple phone call to Rhode Island and either can race up the interstate to Fenway. In the meantime, both need to play regularly to develop into the players that the Red Sox believe they can be. Right now, that time will come at McCoy Stadium and the rest of the parks of the International League. But, at any point during this season, that regular playing time could be in the majors.
While the demotions of Rusney and Blake should be personally disappointing, for fans of the Red Sox, it shows that the front office is ready to put what they believe to be the best 25-man roster on the field. These moves show that Dave Dombrowski is well-versed in how to use the PawSox Shuttle. And proper usage of the shuttle may well give the Red Sox the edge they need in the competitive AL East.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.