Right now, the Milwaukee Brewers backstops aren’t exactly a highlight for the team. Manny Piña is slashing a .220/.280/.385, and that’s historically good compared to Jett Bandy and Stephen Vogt. Bandy has been next to useless at the plate, hitting .172/.250/.259 while striking out nearly 30% of the time and only walking 3% of the time. Vogt, on the other hand, suffered a devastating shoulder injury that could end up costing his career.
The Brewers could have a great opportunity to get some help! A couple days ago, news that 26-year-old Blake Swihart had requested a trade from the Boston Red Sox started making headlines. Swihart is a former top prospect who was unanimously ranked in the league’s top 20 during his final year of eligibility. Unfortunately for Swihart, he’s gotten little to no playing time with the Red Sox.
Let me start by mentioning that I definitely see the irony. I call Jett Bandy nearly unplayable while saying they should replace him with a player who’s performing as well as... well, Jett Bandy. But as I’ll explain, I think there’s more potential benefit to taking on a player who, at worst, plays like Bandy, or could potentially thrive in a new environment with the chance to develop.
In 2015, Swihart made his debut and was able to chug out a .274/.319/.392 line with a 92 wRC+ in 300 plate appearance. In my opinion, that’s pretty good for any rookie, and something I think would excite most organizations. Apparently not, because since then, Swihart has 103 plate appearance over three years. During this time his offense has been miserable, but I hardly think it’s fair to judge anyone on those minimal opportunities.
Some of those few and far between chances were due to injuries, some were due to performance in the minors during recovery, but it was mostly due to Boston not having a spot. The team tried to get him more playing time by converting him to the outfield, but — and this may be news to you — it turns out Boston has a pretty impressive outfield. Meanwhile, rumors have swirled that the pitching staff doesn’t like throwing to Swihart and that he isn’t where he needs to be defensively.
These remarks about his defense were odd, though. Throughout his development, Swihart has been lauded for being one of the better defenders in the minors. Add on one hell of an arm and he has the makings of a pretty good defensive backstop. Perhaps his defense wasn’t good with the Red Sox because he never had the opportunity to regularly work on his craft while being asked to play outfield more often than not.
Meanwhile, Swihart’s offensive profile is something that would excite most organizations. A switch-hitting catcher, most scouts were giving him a 60 hit tool in the minors with average power and above average speed at the position. At 26 and with minimal at-bats, Swihart still makes hard contact on 30% of the balls he puts in play to accompany a 20% line drive rate. That suggests that the constant failure in minimal opportunities is the victim of a small sample size coupled with bad luck. Swihart has a solid 8% career walk-rate while striking out 24% of the time. If his bat was just given a regular opportunity, it’s easy to imagine things coming together.
The cost should also be relatively low. If the team isn’t getting performance out of Swihart, the pitchers don’t want to work with him, he can’t find playing time, and it’s made public that he requested his trade, his value is not what it used to be. The Red Sox have every right to hold onto him until they get an offer they like. The Brewers could make a compelling case for a one-for-one swap with some of the talent on their roster that could be great but has hit a few bumps in the road.
One argument to be made against this potential acquisition is the outstanding progress of Jacob Nottingham at AAA. Nottingham is having a fantastic year, but it’s genuinely the first time he’s had sustained success with the bat since coming to the Brewers. The young catcher also has plenty to work on behind the plate. He’s grown substantially more than anyone predicted he would defensively, but to keep the progress and growth, he needs consistent regular work behind the plate. I can’t imagine the Brewers would rather risk the development of a potential long-term impact player for part-time at-bats and a spark to the offense (not to mention that he’s injured right now). Nottingham also has two more option years remaining and a full six-year slate of club control, so it’s not like he’s going anywhere anytime soon. The Brewers could easily give Swihart a look while continuing to develop Nottingham in the minors, and if it doesn’t work out with Blake, there’s no reason the team couldn’t just cut bait and move on.
Swihart might not be the solution, but it’s difficult to imagine him being any worse than the other backup catching options the Brewers have in-house. If he could actually split time with Manny Piña and work on his catching again, while being able to get competitive at-bats regularly, maybe there’s even a chance he could start showing that promise that made him one of baseball’s best prospects to begin with.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs