This article is part of a regular series in which we profile a specific prospect, detailing his background, strengths, weaknesses, and future.
As they did many times before the new collective bargaining agreement, the Boston Red Sox went well over-slot to sign Blake Swihart in 2011 after selecting him 26th overall. Their willingness to invest $2.5 million in a prep catcher had much to do with Swihart's athleticism behind the plate and switch-hitting-ness while at it.
Fast forward almost one full calendar year and it's still way too soon to call the Red Sox worried, but let's just say they are on alert.
The Red Sox elected to have Swihart begin his professional career in a full-season league, which is always a daring move for a prep player, but one that the organization thought he could handle. Also, given that Swihart was old for his draft class, Low-A was a level the organization wanted to get to this season at one point or another, so they simply expedited the process.
Swihart has held his head above water in Greenville, which should be acknowledged as a respectable feat for any player who was facing high school competition just one year ago, and is even more notworthy for someone who also has to deal with the rigors and responsibility of catching every day. But for Swihart, the expectations - those that come with signing for a franchise position-player record - were simply higher than just holding his head above water.
Fair or not, the Red Sox have to be slightly disappointed with Swihart's offensive production this season. in 75 games, Swihart has hit .255/.298/.395 with a wOBA of .313. His average has suffered from a slightly below-average BABIP of .288, but it's not his average that is worrisome. His 6.7% walk rate signifies below-average plate discipline, and his ISO of .140 isn't the type of power the Red Sox had hoped for, whether in the form of doubles or home runs.
Further, Swihart has struggled batting as a right-handed hitter, which is his natural side as a hitter and was supposed to be his better half. As a righty, he has hit just .227/.293/.348, although he has struck out less and walked more than as a lefty. According to Baseball America, his power is further developed from the left side, and his ISO is slightly higher from that side (.141 compared to .121 as a RHH), but we're dealing with small sample sizes here, especially when we break down just 315 plate appearances into two sides of the plate.
Before the season, Marc Hulet of FanGraphs.com said that Swihart "is a promising young catcher in the Wil Myers mold." For comparison's sake, Myers, in his first full season at age-19, tore up the Low-A Midwest League, hitting .298/.408/.500 before forcing a promotion to Wilmington, where he hit .346/.453/.512 in the most pitcher-friendly environment in the minor leagues. Myers did have 90 more plate appearances in his draft year than Swihart did, but that experience doesn't explain the vast difference in their offensive production. Swihart is also not the physical presence that Myers is, being listed at just 6'1" 175 lbs. compared to the 6'3" 205 lb. stature of Myers.
Comparisons like Hulet's, while reasonable for a player at the time for a player with virtually no professional experience to go on, create unrealistic expectations for prospects, especially when paired with Swihart's draft status and signing bonus. What we've seen this season is that Swihart is simply not the kind of player that Myers is, but then again, few in the minors are.
What Swihart becomes remains to be seen. The good news for Red Sox fans is that his season totals don't tell the entire story. Swihart struggled mightily in April, hitting just .178/.253/.274. He then hit .289 in May and .322 in June before sliding back down to .244 in July. When going month-to-month, we have to take in the effect of small sample sizes on things like batting averages, but the numbers indicate a pretty common patters for a prospects first professional season - early season struggles, followed hopefully by an adjustment (which Swihart appears to have made), to then be followed by the inevitable wearing down of the body in the dog days of what is the longest season to date of a young player's career. This last part is furthered along even more when talking about a young catcher.
Swihart posted his best power numbers in July, posting a .462 slugging percentage and hitting three of his six home runs on the season. That's a good indication that he's figuring things out at the plate.
Don't be shocked to see his numbers slide further towards the end of the season, but Swihart's mid-season turn around is a good sign for Red Sox fans. Given his prospect status, the organization likely hoped that the transition to professional baseball would be easier for Swihart, but not all prospects can have it as easy as Myers did.
The future is still bright for Swihart, but also still involves a long road to be traveled. If he remains behind the plate, his path to the majors will be slow, but that could also be a good thing for his bat. He hasn't been switch-hitting that long, and developing two sets of hitting abilities obviously takes longer than just working on one side.
Depending on how he finishes the season, don't be surprised to see Swihart back in Greenville next season, especially if the Red Sox want him to master one level before graduating to another. Regardless of his placement, however, Swihart still remains the best catching prospect in the Red Sox system (with a higher ceiling, though no where near the major league readiness of Ryan Lavarnway), and a major part of their development plan.