In a crowded talent pool at the position, Christian Vazquez might be the best Boston Red Sox catching prospect.
Vazquez was in the lineup for the Portland Sea Dogs Tuesday night against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. While his strong and accurate throwing arm and excellent athletic ability behind the plate have been in place from the start, Vazquez's bat is catching up with the rest of his skills.
"In terms of normal progression over the last few years, it's phenomenal," said Sea Dogs hitting coach Rich Gedman. "It's a credit to him and the people around him. His dedication to the game and competitive nature and the will to want to get better, it's really neat to watch it develop. He has some tools, but he's really worked on improving the areas he needs to work on."
Vazquez hails from Puerto Rico and was a ninth-round pick by Boston in the 2008 draft. He spent the end of 2008 and some of 2009 with the Sox Gulf Coast League affiliate. He moved up to Greenville in 2010 and made his way to Portland at the end of last season, hitting .205 over 20 games.
In his first full season with Portland, Vazquez entered Tuesday night's game hitting .291 with five home runs, 44 RBIs and an OPS of .776.
"I'm working every day to watch my head, stay to the middle of the field, stay calm at home plate and see the ball well," Vazquez said.
Gedman said that Vazquez has worked hard all season to improve his plate presence. Vazquez's strikeout numbers are also down — 79 in 101 minor league games last season to just 42 in 91 games this year.
"His discipline at the plate, his strike zone management, not over-swinging, staying on the ball consistently, he's finding himself in a lot of favorable counts," Gedman said. "It's difficult to strike him out. He's really cut down on strikeouts from last year and it's to his credit. He shows up every day and he's taking care of his swing. He's not worried about power numbers. He's been as consistent as anyone on this team all year and he's reaping the benefits."
As for the catching aspect of Vazquez's game, that continues to evolve as well. Having Gedman, who had a 13-year career in the majors with Boston and then Houston and St. Louis at the tail end of his career, has been a nice bonus for Vazquez.
"We talk a lot about everything. With catching, he's helped me a lot," Vazquez said. "It's coming. I'm learning about reading swings with Geddy. We talk a lot because he was a good catcher in the big leagues. Reading the good stuff of the pitchers, we talk a lot before the games and have meetings about how we're going to pitch this guy or that guy. It's getting better."
Gedman said that he's always willing to listen and does talk catching with Vazquez, but that Sea Dogs manager Kevin Boles has helped with Vazquez's progress behind the plate the most.
"Watching him in the game and what he brings to the pitching staff, it's not often you find a player who catches and throws like him. And right there you have something special," Gedman said. "His game-calling has gotten better. He's getting to see different pitchers and different styles of pitching and finding what works and doesn't work. He's gaining experience and confidence in his game-calling. He's feeling the freedom to do what he needs to do. As he goes up, he's going to learn from the pitchers as well."
So what of that crowded catching pool in the Sox system? In Triple-A Pawtucket right now is Ryan Lavarnway, who is likely to be called up to Boston when the rosters expand in a week. Dan Butler, another strong defensive catcher, is also in Pawtucket. Down in Single-A Salem is Blake Swihart, ranked the No. 9 Sox prospect.
There isn't room for everyone, but Vazquez would figure to be first in line for a call-up, maybe even this season. Vazquez said that no matter what happens, he's very pleased with his performance this year.
"In September, you don't know what's going to happen with me with a call. That's not my (decision)," Vazquez said. "I feel very good with my year. I'm happy."
FISHER CATS FOOD DRIVE: The Fisher Cats will host the Sea Dogs for a 6:35 game tonight at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium and the team is asking fans to bring canned goods for donation to the New Hampshire Food Bank.
Staff writer Ian Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.