PAWTUCKET – Whether it’s promoting him to a new level or putting more responsibilities on his plate, the Red Sox have never shied away from challenging Christian Vazquez.
“Whether it’s going to the Arizona Fall League or his first big-league (spring training) camp, this guy has exceeded expectations every time,” gushed Red Sox Minor-League Catching Coordinator Chad Epperson on Thursday when asked about the recently-promoted-to-the-majors Vazquez.
Vazquez is presently the toast of the Boston baseball world for the simple reason that he’s not named A.J. Pierzynski, but there is a pressing challenge awaiting the 23-year-old as the Red Sox return to work Friday night.
Regardless of whether Boston gets back in contention or remains mired in last place, Vazquez must make the most of the season’s remaining games if he wants to show why he deserves Boston’s starting catching job.
“He’s up there for one reason and that’s to earn his keep. Just because he’s up there, he has to work even harder,” said Epperson about Vazquez and the perception that he’s more than just a short-term solution. “You’ve got to be professional as far as being prepared every day, making the starting pitcher the number one priority and having the staff behind you in what you’re doing.
The strong-armed Vazquez will have to adjust to his second new environment in a year. Last July he was catching Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes in Double-A Portland
“That’s always a challenge and not easy for anybody to do,” Epperson said. “It becomes easier once the game starts and he can do his art, which is play.”
Asked about the issues that could arise from introducing a rookie catcher in the middle of the season, Epperson said Vazquez’ growing pains should be minimal thanks to the interaction he’s had with veteran players like Jon Lester and John Lackey during the past few spring trainings.
“It’s not just David (Ross) or A.J. catching Lackey, it’s everybody. Our staff does a great job that in the event these guys get called up, they aren’t overwhelmed with what’s going on with the scouting reports and so forth. We do a good job in dummying this thing down and make it productive for that individual,” Epperson said. “It is hard for a catcher because there are the demands of running the game.”
Lackey, a 12-year big league veteran who has worked with some of the game’s very best backstops, including Bengie and Jose Molina, praised Vazquez after they were paired together last Friday in Houston.
“He really executed the gameplan we talked about beforehand,” Lackey told reporters in Houston.
“As much as Christian is already confident, now it’s like ‘Okay, Lackey is saying things.’ That’s great for him,” Epperson said. “Any encouragement he can get from veteran guys is something he should be proud of.”
According to Epperson, Vazquez hit all the prerequisite defensive and offensive checkpoints the Red Sox set for him before the start of the season.
“He was told to pay attention to the small things, whether that’s how you throw the ball back to the pitcher or around the bases and setting up in your stance on time … we all knew the talent was there. You’ve just got to make sure the talent is working the right way to handle the demands of this particular position,” said Epperson. “He’s done a great job of managing his at-bats. It’s not about a desired result but rather having some sort of productive at-bat. He’s always put up some numbers. Nothing that wows you, but nothing that would keep him from reaching the big leagues.”
Now that Vazquez has officially reached the summit of professional ball, he needs to be mindful that he needs to work just as hard to stay there.
“He’s going to understand that the road to success is always under construction and you have to work,” Epperson said.
With the overseer of the organization’s catching prospects in town, it seemed appropriate to ask Epperson for his thoughts on the backstop Vazquez had been splitting the Triple-A duties with, Dan Butler, and someone who could be joining Pawtucket relatively soon, prospect Blake Swihart.
“He’s in a good spot,” said Epperson about Swihart, who carried a .296 batting average into Thursday’s game. “He’s getting his reps behind the plate and has been fortunate to catch some of our top (pitching) prospects.”
Until Swihart is promoted, Butler will receive the lion’s share of the time behind the plate. Remember, Butler has been in a timeshare arrangement for virtually his entire Triple-A career. For now, it’s a prime opportunity for him to boost the .224 batting average he ended the first half with.
“Dan is so dependable. He’s also been around long enough to know that these things have a way of figuring themselves out. He was in the same boat last year but he ends up getting all the playing time and winning team MVP honors for Pawtucket,” said Epperson. “He’s going to make the most of this opportunity, I have no doubt.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03