Back in January, I advocated the team upgrading the backup catcher spot. It seemed like a decent way to squeeze an extra win out of a roster that, at the time, did not include either Bryce Harper or J.T. Realmuto. It looked like a team that needed to get any extra wins it could muster due to the fact that the rest of the National League East had upgraded so much (sorry - not you, Miami).
Fast forward to now and this team looks a lot better - and still needs to add a better option at the backup catcher spot. Well, unless you count a .191/.289/.302 line in 221 plate appearances as being acceptable enough. That is what Andrew Knapp has bestowed on this team over the last year plus with the bat. It also doesn’t even mention his well below average marks with the glove, ranking near the bottom of baseball in pitch framing and throwing runners out. It’s to the point where even a walk that prolongs an inning, like what happened Monday night against the Mets, seems like a moral victory worthy of a complimentary starting lineup spot the following day.
So how can the team upgrade? Most of the options I mentioned in the previous article were free agents and would have only cost money, something this team still has. The latest option, though, would only require a waiver claim or trade.
Tuesday afternoon, the Boston Red Sox designated Blake Swihart for assignment when they decided to shake up their own catching corps. Swihart currently possesses a .231/.310/.385 line in 29 plate appearances, nothing to get too excited about, even in a small sample size. Even factoring in that valuable catching defense, Swihart, dating back to last season, is right around average in all things defense, a sniff below in the framing department in this year’s tiny sample. He wouldn’t be the biggest upgrade, but he’d be an upgrade nonetheless. How so?
It wasn’t long ago that Swihart was viewed as a potential centerpiece for Cole Hamels. Just look at this piece from 2015:
For now, and for as long as the Phillies insist on a price tag of Henry Owens and either Blake Swihart or Mookie Betts in addition to assuming the minimum $96 million remaining on Hamels’ deal, the Red Sox have decided they can live without Hamels and make do with their pear-shaped rotation.
Swihart was the player the Phillies wanted in any deal for Hamels, seeing him as a cornerstone catcher around which they could have built. We know they were looking for backstops since Jorge Alfaro was the centerpiece of the package that ultimately got Hamels.
The point is, Swihart still has that air about him that he was a good prospect once and that all he needs is a different place, a change of scenery. It’s likely that he won’t go through waivers unclaimed since he still does that hope of upside remaining. He’s out of minor league options, but were he to be good enough to stick around, he’s still got three more seasons of control left at what would probably be modest costs unless he were to break out offensively.
Let’s try out a hypothetical.
Suppose Swihart comes to Philadelphia and suddenly begins to find his stroke. Let’s say he’s got a, oh I don’t know, a 105 OPS+ by the end of May in about 50-75 plate appearances. Now all of a sudden this team has another weapon they can use in the lineup. The best part?
“Uh oh, Ethan must have fallen asleep on his computer”, you’re thinking. Nope. Those are the positions at which Swihart actually appeared at in 2018. He play in six different defensive positions. Was he good at any of them?
Let’s not get hasty, folks. We’re not looking for Gold Glove here. We’re looking for “hold down the fort” level. This versatility would be good for the Phillies for those days when Swihart is giving Realmuto a day off, but manager Gabe Kapler sees an opportunity for a pinch hitting appearance late in a game in which he can hit Realmuto for ________ and move Swihart to another position. It’s not much, but in this tight of a contest that the NL East projects to be, those are the kinds of moves that if they pay off could be the difference in a pennant or an early tee time in October.
Blake Swihart isn’t going to be a player that comes in and unseats J.T. Realmuto any time soon. No one is. What he can do is provide a modest upgrade to this roster by way of replacing Knapp as the catcher giving Realmuto that breather and giving Kapler an option to play him at multiple positions should the need arise. If in the case of an injury to Realmuto, it would be fine to have him in the lineup for 10-15 games while J.T. recovers (if he’s out longer, they have bigger worries). So this is the opportunity the team has to get better, even if it’s a small amount. That small amount could be the difference this season.