Is Blake Swihart Wrong Catch for Cole Hamels?


Yesterday, it was reported that the trade talks for Cole Hamels were still alive and well.

It was also reported by Nightengale that the Phillies had specifically asked the Red Sox, one the teams involved, for catching prospect Blake Swihart to be included in any deal for Hamels, but Boston has refused. This makes sense on both of their parts. 

More from That Balls Outta Here

The best catching prospect the Phillies have is Deivi Grullon, yet he is only 18 years old, and has only reached as high as short season ball in Williamsport. Wanting to upgrade the catching depth is a no-brainer, especially with Carlos Ruiz headed into his age-36 season.

The Red Sox wanting to hold onto Swihart also makes sense, since he is not only their best catching prospect, he is their best prospect overall. Losing him would hurt the team in the near future, as they would be losing not only a top prospect at a premium position, but also 6 years of team control as well. So, the two teams sit in a stalemate.

However, are the Phillies going after the right catching prospect from Boston? Swihart would undoubtedly be a boon to the Phillies’ minor league system. It would instantly upgrade what may be their weakest prospect position, as well as give them some of that coveted big league ready talent.

It could be argued that Amaro has backed himself into a corner by letting it be known that he wants Swihart that badly. Some folks would think that anything less than an acquisition of the young 22-year old would mean any Bosox-Hamels trade is a loss for the Phillies.

overall profile could make him a first division player” ~ Baseball Prospectus, on Christian Vazquez

However, there is another young catcher in the Boston system, that, if included with the correct combination of other prospects, could make a potential Hamels trade to Boston a bigger win than at first blush.

Christian Vazquez arrived in Boston last year with the reputation of being a glove-first catcher, with a bat that could catch up and be league average later on. Last season in their top 10 prospect rankings, Baseball Prospectus described Vazquez by saying he could have a “5 potential hit” tool, with “some pop” that “doesn’t project to have much over-the-fence power”.

However, when describing his defense, they gave him a “7 arm” with a “6+ potential glove”. These grades mean that his defense is probably going to be very good. They also said that “the overall profile could make him a first division player because of the impact potential of his defense”. These grades actually started to come to fruition once Vazquez arrived in the majors.

He made his debut on July 9th, and proceeded to accumulate 201 plate appearances the rest of the season. He compiled a .240/.308/.309 batting line, with one home run and a 33/19 strikeout to walk ratio, good for a 75 OPS+. These numbers don’t inspire much confidence in his hitting ability, yet he accumulated 1.1 rWAR in that time. How? The simple answer: defense.

Vazquez gunned down 15 of the 29 runners (52%) who tried to steal a base on him, which is an amazing number regardless of how much playing time he had.

Looking at some of the more advanced catching statistics, Vazquez ranks with some of the best framers already in the game. In 3,170 potential framing chances, he added 98.5 strikes for his pitchers, good for 9th in baseball, regardless of games played.

His other advanced framing statistics were also just as impressive, especially considering that, since he started so late in the season, he had about half the chances of many other catchers. 

It’s important to mention that all of Vazquez’s numbers defensively would be an improvement over Carlos Ruiz right now. In the numbers I just referenced, as well as the stat report I linked, Ruiz ranks near the bottom of every category.

Phillies need to prepare to move on from fan favorite catcher Carlos Ruiz

(Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

What is impossible to quantify (for now, at least) is the ability Ruiz has to call a game, as well as the rapport he has with the current group of Phillies pitchers, and the ability he has with the bat. Vazquez, were he to be acquired, would take time to develop these same skills.

Giving Vazquez regular playing time would mean that Ruiz is likely not with the team. But with the Phillies in a full-out rebuild, a cheap way to make up for some of the potential loss the club might see offensively would be to acquire better defenders. Vazquez would go a long way to accomplishing such a goal.

Now, it would be irresponsible to go on about Vazquez’s defense without mentioning Swihart. Most scouting reports, including the ones linked above, say that Swihart will be an above-average defender. While he may not be on the same plane as Vazquez (judging by the numbers, few are), his better overall package of skills means he’s probably a better overall prospect than Vazquez. But therein lies the argument.

Swihart would be a great headliner to any deal for Hamels. However, asking a team like Boston for their top prospect would likely mean that the rest of the package would include players/prospects of a lesser stature.

Any trade for Hamels, from the Phillies’ perspective, should hurt the other, as well it should. He has been, and should continue to be, one of the top 12 pitchers in the game. Acquiring him should cost the other team some major talent.

But it makes one wonder: should the Phillies be targeting Swihart and other lesser prospects, or go get Vazquez and potentially improve the rest of the package that comes with him? Ruben Amaro‘s job may depend on his answering that question.