Meet the most interesting player in Red Sox camp

Over the past 10 days, Blake Swihart has started seven games at four positions for the Red Sox. Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He was an Opening Day catcher two months before wrecking his ankle while playing left field. He crams four varieties of gloves into one spring training equipment bag. And although he is out of minor league options, his career could still go in more directions than a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel.

He is Blake Swihart, and he’s the most interesting player in the Boston Red Sox’s camp.

Just ask opposing scouts, many of whom can’t take their eyes off him.

“To me,” a National League talent evaluator said Friday, “he’s a legit trade target.”

A former first-round draft pick in 2011 (No. 26 overall), Swihart was regarded as recently as three years ago as the Red Sox’s catcher of the future. But criticism of his defense behind the plate, an ill-advised decision to move him to an unfamiliar outfield position and a serious left ankle injury torpedoed his 2016 and 2017 seasons and put him on an alternate course, one that now has him attempting to make the big league roster -- Boston’s or perhaps another team’s --- as a super-utility player.

Over the past 10 days, Swihart has started seven games at four positions. He played first base for six innings Feb. 28, served as the designated hitter March 1 and was behind the plate March 2. He was the DH again on Sunday, played six innings in left field on Tuesday, caught Thursday and was the DH on Friday.

Next week figures to bring more of the same, with the possibility of adding third base to the rotation.

“Love it,” Swihart said. “Especially when I’m healthy, I love playing. If I can go out there and get as many reps as I can, it’s almost like a tryout for me.”

Actually, that's exactly what it is.

Coming off a strong season last year, Christian Vazquez has ascended to the role of the Red Sox’s primary catcher. Sandy Leon has the inside track to be the backup, in part because he was ace lefty Chris Sale's preferred catcher last season. Barring injuries, 11 of the 13 Opening Day roster spots for position players are filled, setting up a three-way fight for two jobs between Swihart and utilitymen Brock Holt and Deven Marrero.

Holt has the track record, to say nothing of the ability to play seven positions. But Marrero and Swihart are out of options and can't be sent to Triple-A without being exposed to waivers. There’s at least a chance that Marrero, a slick fielder but a .208/.259/.309 career hitter, would go unclaimed. Swihart almost certainly would not.

And so, the Red Sox are trying to increase Swihart’s versatility. First-year manager Alex Cora has drawn comparisons between Swihart and Austin Barnes, who played 55 games at catcher, 21 at second base and one at third base last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“There’s a guy, he can catch and all of a sudden in the World Series he was playing second base because he’s that good of an athlete,” Cora said. “You see how athletic [Swihart] is. He’s one of the best athletes out there.”

But there’s another point to all of this: By maximizing Swihart’s playing time in spring training, the Red Sox also are showcasing him to other teams. Swihart might not have as much trade value as he did in, say, the winter of 2014-15, when he was strictly a catcher and Boston's then-general manager Ben Cherington refused to deal him to the Philadelphia Phillies for lefty Cole Hamels. But if there isn’t a spot for him as a regular on the Red Sox’s roster, it’s possible his best use to them might be in a trade to a catcher-needy team.

“I’d let him catch and develop his bat and fill in elsewhere to get at-bats, but the utility thing can be done any time down the road,” the NL talent evaluator said. “Either way, I still worry that he won’t get enough at-bats right now [with the Red Sox], barring injury.”

Swihart insists he isn’t focusing on all that -- “I think I’ve been in every trade rumor since the day I was signed,” he said -- but rather on whatever position he’s asked play on a given day. Although he has stated a preference for remaining a full-time catcher, he isn’t averse to mastering new positions. As long as he plays almost every day at the big league level, Swihart doesn’t much care where he is on the field.

“I do think he could be one of those guys,” said Shane Shallenberger, Swihart’s former coach at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. “He’s never been, ‘I'm just a catcher.’”

Swihart always has been uncommonly athletic for a catcher, probably because he was an infielder until his junior year of high school. It was then that, as Shallenberger recalls, Swihart showed up for practice and said, “I want to work on catching.”

Swihart had a good reason. He thought it would improve his draft stock, according to Shallenberger, who suggests that Swihart be taken at his word when he says he’s committed to expanding his skills at other positions as a way of cementing a big league job.

“I never really had plans of Blake catching because he was so good at other positions, but for what we had, it really worked out for our program at the time,” Shallenberger said. “I think Blake has always had a plan of what he wanted to do with his baseball career, so I didn’t ever question him. I said, ‘Let’s see what you can do,’ and of course, he became one heck of a catcher.”

On that point, there’s some difference of opinion. Swihart was rushed to the majors in 2015 after both Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan got injured and caught 83 games for the Red Sox. Some pitchers, including veteran right-hander Clay Buchholz, expressed a preference for throwing to Leon, a more experienced game-caller.

Last year, Swihart’s arm came under scrutiny in spring training when it appeared he had the yips while throwing the ball back to the pitcher.

“I really don’t know where it came from that I wasn’t a good catcher and I couldn’t throw, so I put in a lot of work this offseason,” Swihart said. “I feel like there’s a lot of balls [in the dirt] that I get to. I’ve heard that I can’t throw either, but I can throw the ball 100 mph. I’ve just got to keep proving myself.”

Indeed, Shallenberger said Swihart uses the criticism as motivation. Swihart also doesn’t waste time lamenting the move to left field, thinking about his collision with the wall in foul territory at Fenway Park and wondering if he might have avoided ankle surgery if the Red Sox hadn’t tried to introduce him to a new position.

“Blake doesn’t cry over spilled milk, so to speak,” Shallenberger said. “He knew he had to rehab 100 percent, and I think he was a little frustrated that he wasn’t 100 percent [last year]. But he definitely wasn’t down about it. That injury set him back pretty good, so he had to learn from adversity and overcome that. I think he did.”

Swihart is out to prove it this spring, one way or another. And on a Red Sox team that is largely unchanged from last season, he’s the most interesting story in camp.