There are few catching prospects in recent years who take such complete control of a game from behind the plate as Christian Vazquez. He is a presence behind the dish, someone whose leadership with a pitching staff and whose game-changing throwing arm and technical expertise behind the plate thanks to tremendously quick feet command notice.
He seems a natural for his chosen undertaking.
"This guy," said Red Sox minor league catching coordinator Chad Epperson, "came out with shin guards on."
Why, then, did Vazquez see time at third base in 2009, or at both first and second for the Red Sox' Single-A Greenville affiliate in 2010? The answer points to a fascinating and unlikely development path that has brought Vazquez to the point where he is now, assuming primary catching responsibilities in the big leagues for the Red Sox.
Throughout many steps of the player development process, such an outcome seemed unlikely. But Vazquez's dogged persistence and self-confidence brought him to the point of his current opportunity.
"The main thing to me is trust yourself. If you don't trust yourself, you're going the wrong way," Vazquez said earlier this year. "I trust myself. I think I'm the best catcher in the world. That helps me every day."
He needed that outlook at times when his path to a big league role with the Red Sox, let alone a starting job, might have been hard to fathom.
In 2008, there was an ongoing conversation about finding the successor to Jason Varitek, but few obvious candidates to do so. Each draft was scrutinized to see if there might be an heir apparent to the Sox captain.
The Sox didn't use their earliest picks of the 2008 draft on a catcher, but they did invest in possible solutions at the position. In the sixth round, they selected a catcher whose offense was his calling card in Ryan Lavarnway. In the seventh, the team took one of the preeminent defenders in the college ranks that year, Tim Federowicz out of the University of North Carolina. Even in the 35th round, the team made a noteworthy selection, tabbing high school shortstop Carson Blair and committing $200,000 with the idea of shifting him behind the plate.
And in the ninth round, the team made a low-cost, low-risk pick, selecting 17-year-old catcher Christian Vazquez out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. Right or not, dollars are often used as an indicator of prospect status coming out of the draft, and so the $80,000 received by Vazquez suggested that he was behind those other three draftees in the prospect pecking order.
Still, the Sox' area scout in Puerto Rico, Edgar Perez, thought the team had done well to acquire a player with the raw materials to be a big leaguer. Perez had seen Vazquez dating to his junior year, and had a feel for what he could be if he stayed in shape. He saw a player with a catcher's compact frame that suggested the potential for durability, along with the defensive actions to handle the position.
"He always flashed good receiving actions and quick footwork. He always was a pretty good receiving catcher behind the plate. Not a big guy. Out of shape a little bit in the beginning of his career. But he was always flashing good receiving skills and he always hit the ball pretty well," said Perez. "When you draft a kid at 17 years old, it's all about projection. He wasn't as developed as you would like. But he was pretty good. He was a short guy. His arm was close to average, his receiving skills were pretty good and he always hit the ball. He didn't strike out much. He didn't have a swing-and-miss swing. So, we thought he could be at least a good backup in the big leagues."
Vazquez had grown up dreaming of being a big league catcher, following in the tradition of Puerto Rican greats at the position. He'd grown up watching an Ivan Rodriguez catching instruction DVD three times a week with his father, and constantly did ladder drills to develop a catcher's quick feet. This was a vocation.
Yet he hardly cut the figure to profile at the position -- or any other one. At a listed height of 5-foot-9 and weight of 195 pounds, Vazquez still had what Perez characterized as "baby fat." He possessed a rotund body type that hardly screamed of a future big leaguer at the start of his pro career.
"I actually vividly remember the day he got to the complex in Fort Myers," recalled Red Sox assistant director of player development Duncan Webb. "I see this guy get out of the van, walk up to the front door, and I'm thinking, 'I don't know who this guy is, but it doesn't look like Christian Vazquez, our ninth-round, Puerto Rican catcher.' "
Vazquez's reddish hair and short, stocky frame made him appear as much "like a Boston kid whose last name could be Sullivan" as it did a successor to the rich catching tradition of Puerto Rico.
On the field, it was similarly difficult at times to see the foundation of a future big leaguer -- but there were, at least, some singular elements that made clear what Perez had seen in the teenager. Vazquez wasn't strong at the time, and didn't drive the ball, but he had a good, clean swing and the ability to make contact by using his hands to manipulate the barrel of the bat.
Though his incredible throwing arm and landmark pop times on throws from home to second are now Vazquez's hallmark, he didn't yet have the physical strength to be able to send rockets to the bases. But he did show some distinct traits that pointed toward his potential at the position.
"He had this ability to transfer the ball from catching it to throwing it as quick as I'd ever seen," said Webb. "That was one thing that stood out from his catching ability. It wasn't his throwing. It wasn't his blocking. It wasn't his receiving. It was his ability to catch the ball, and before you know it, it's gone. That's something that he always did. Scouts did a great job of recognizing it, because it doesn't come across too often. But he would do that and then have a little lollipop throw to second base because he didn't have the arm strength."
Physically, there were times when games looked like a struggle for Vazquez. Maintaining his focus and effort level over nine innings could be a challenge. There were hints of some tools that separated him from other catchers, but the application of those proved inconsistent at best.
"Like any typical 17-year-old, coming in, the best way to put it is, there were some things he did that you'd look at and say, 'Really?' Like jogging after a ball, something that he missed, you said, 'Oh my goodness,' " said Epperson. "But he always flashed you that arm or that ability to block a ball, and when you were seeing balls off the machine, you'd say, 'Damn. That's impressive.' Trying to get that to translate into the game was the toughest thing to do with him."
TAKING A BACK SEAT
The lack of physical development, in turn, suggested that Vazquez was a project -- and one who would have to wait for years before receiving an opportunity to be the primary catcher at any level. In the Gulf Coast League, he saw less playing time than Blair in 2009 and, after moving up to Lowell, he was behind any number of other catchers, among them an undrafted free agent who had just signed (Dan Butler) and a catcher from Taiwan named Chia-Chu Chen.
"I did remember Christian was kind of taking a back seat to Chen when he was in Lowell," recalled Webb.
Chen never played at a level above Lowell. But the Sox hadn't yet reached the conclusion that he wouldn't be able to advance, and so in order to accommodate Chen and others behind the plate, Vazquez ended up moving a bit around the infield, most notably playing third base for weeks at a time in deference to both his need for at-bats in the infant stages of his pro career but also to the priority attached by the Sox to seeing other players behind the plate. And Vazquez's hands and actions were good enough that he could get playing time at positions other than catcher.
Still, the message offered by the positional shifts and the fact that Vazquez was getting less playing time behind the plate than others required clarification, particularly when it persisted into 2010 in Greenville. Butler, who is four years older than Vazquez, was impressing in his first pro exposure, and Vazquez ended up being Butler's backup.
"He was a little frustrated that he wasn't playing more, but we had to convince him that, 'We really like you, but we really like Butler, too,' " said Webb.
MOVING INTO THE FRONT SEAT
Behind the scenes, there were other messages, too. No junk food. Work hard to maintain your shape and conditioning. Do not be discouraged. The opportunity will come.
By 2011, Vazquez had put himself in a position for that opportunity. Though he was being asked to repeat in Single-A Greenville, the potentially discouraging message of being asked to repeat at a level was obscured by a more significant one: Vazquez would be the everyday starting catcher in Greenville, with a chance to make his mark.
Vazquez took full advantage of his shot. In 105 games, he hit .283 with a .358 OBP, a .505 slugging mark, 18 homers and 84 RBIs. Granted, Greenville has an extremely favorable park for right-handed hitters, but the fact that Vazquez was putting up those kinds of numbers as a 20-year-old underscored the strength gains he had made. It served as a revelation.
"That year I played a lot of games in Greenville, I thought, 'I can do this. I can be a major league player if I want, if I play hard every day. I have the skills,' " said Vazquez.
The revelation was apparent to those who watched him. Suddenly, Vazquez was being seen in a different light by the organization. The progress he'd made in the three years since he'd been drafted was evident both offensively and defensively.
For the first time, the idea of Vazquez as a future big leaguer was no longer a leap of faith and projection. He looked the part.
"Just like any player going through our system, the light bulb goes on. You're on one side of the highway where we are, trying to move you in the right direction, they're on the other side, and sooner or later it's going to meet, and that's when that player takes off," said Epperson. "That's exactly what happened. The light bulb went off. The ability was there. Kudos to him."
Vazquez had a big year offensively, but the strength gains manifested themselves in another, even more noteworthy fashion. Thanks to overall strength and conditioning as well as his commitment to a shoulder program, Vazquez's arm strength was increasing -- dramatically.
As a result of his hard work with Epperson and other Red Sox coaches, he developed tremendous foot speed that, in complement with his lightning transfers, started to yield some head-turning times on his throws from home to second. He threw out 33 percent of would-be base stealers this year, but there were early indications of his potential to be an impact defender. And his hand strength increased as well, permitting him to frame pitches and to start stealing strikes for pitchers.
"That's when you saw this guy developing into a premium defender," said Webb.
His game was advancing even beyond where the Sox had anticipated when they scouted and signed him.
"I got the chance to see him in the offseason [after 2011] when he played for us on the Puerto Rican national team," said Perez. "I said, 'Wow, Christian, there's a big difference between now and three years ago.' "
THE ROAD FORWARD
The first four years of Vazquez's minor league career were characterized by a deliberate pace of his progression: Parts of two years on the lowest rung of the minor league ladder in the Gulf Coast League, two full years on the lowest rung of the full-season ladder in Greenville. But once the light bulb went on for Vazquez, it grew progressively brighter.
After a slow first half in High-A Salem in 2012, Vazquez had an outrageous second half, hitting .353 with a .455 OBP and .598 slugging mark in 28 games while displaying standout defense to earn a late-season promotion to Double-A. His impact behind the plate had become sufficiently evident that the Sox added him to the 40-man roster that offseason, fearful that another team might see a potential elite defender and take a chance on him in the Rule 5 draft.
That, in turn, ensured Vazquez would have his first opportunity in a big league camp in 2013, and he dazzled there, throwing out everyone who tried to steal on him and showing landmark home-to-second throwing times that were unprecedented in the experience of numerous evaluators (whether with the Red Sox or other organizations) who saw him. He backed that up with arguably his most impressive offensive season, hitting .289/.376/.395 with Double-A Portland while walking more (47 times) than he struck out (44 times).
Meanwhile, he worked masterfully with a standout group of pitching prospects that included Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Drake Britton and Henry Owens.
"When I saw him handling that kind of pitching we had in Portland last year, the things he did, I told him, 'Christian, you have a really good chance to have a really, really long career in the big leagues. I really mean that,' " said Perez.
Each promotion made that case more apparent. Vazquez continued to hit, challenging the idea that his glove would be his only carrying tool on the way to a career as a backup. He has yet to be beaten by a level. To the contrary, he has looked more sure of himself on his way up the ladder.
"The more he got challenged, going to Salem, going to Portland, you started thinking, 'Wow.' Every single time he got promoted or got invited to do something, he turned up. You'd think, 'There's so much more in the tank. He's being challenged and he's not backing down,' " said Epperson. "You started looking at him in Salem and thinking we've got something here. You started hearing people talk. You could start to see it in his eyes."
It was a performance that convinced the Sox that he would be ready for the big leagues by 2015, if not sooner (with the team's top position prospect, Blake Swihart, not far behind), and motivated the offseason strategy of letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk and seeking a bridge solution. His performance this year in Pawtucket (a .279/.336/.385 line with outstanding defense that drew raves from those with big league experience in Triple-A) put him in a position where the Red Sox made the move on Wednesday to call up Vazquez and designate A.J. Pierzynski for assignment.
Make no mistake: The move was motivated in no small part by a desire to best position Vazquez for the future, to give him a critical opportunity for an apprenticeship at the big league level at the most challenging position at which to transition. But the team also did so because it believes that Vazquez, even as he makes his adjustments to the highest level, represents their best option for 2014.
"We are better right now with this move," said one team official.
The jury is still out as to whether Vazquez will hit enough to assert himself as a long-term starter in the big leagues. But there are those in the Sox organization who have seen the player development trajectory, the steady progress, and believe there is more in the tank.
If he can manage his at-bats, put the ball in play, hit for a little bit of average and get on base at roughly average clips (the average AL catcher this year is hitting .246 with a .307 OBP), then given his elite defensive potential, he's a good starting catcher in the big leagues. If he's capable of even more dramatic, later development as a hitter -- something seen on occasion with catchers such as Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz -- then he can be a standout.
"You might be looking at a guy who can be following in line of the Molinas, [Pudge] Rodriguez and all those guys -- a catcher who can hit .280, .290, maybe .300," said Perez. "He can manage at-bats, has a clean swing with leverage on the swing. I can say that he's got a pretty good chance to be an average hitter and everyday catcher in the big leagues."
But, even if the offensive profile remains modest, it's sufficient to suggest that he's a big leaguer who has earned an opportunity to show what he can do.
"You saw a kid [in 2008] that really was real rough, real raw, had a lot of things going on with his swing," said Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, who has worked with Vazquez since those first days of his pro career in 2008. "But he really wanted it. This is a guy who you said, every day he wants to get better.
"[Now] we're going to find out [what he can do]. He's here. This is the highest level. We'll see what he's got."