He was handed a $2.5-million signing bonus, so expectations are naturally high for catcher Blake Swihart.
Talk to Boston Red Sox people about Swihart, and they don’t tone down the hype.
“I think special is a good way to describe him,” Portland Sea Dogs Manager Billy McMillon said.
“The athleticism this guy brings is off the charts,” said Chad Epperson, Boston’s roving minor league catching instructor.
What about his character?
“Off the charts,” Epperson said again.
Boston director of player development Ben Crockett said Swihart could “potentially help us at the major league level.”
Crockett was talking sooner, rather than later.
Even Red Sox Manager John Farrell made note of Swihart in spring training. When reporters were asking about the development of catching prospect Christian Vazquez, Farrell said, “don’t forget about Blake Swihart.”
Notice a trend here? The Boston Red Sox have five catchers on their 40-man roster, all in the major league or in Triple-A, but the future behind the plate at Fenway Park could be a young man wearing the gear at Hadlock Field this season.
Swihart, who turns 22 on Thursday – opening day for the Sea Dogs – is considered that good. His defense is close to the esteemed Vazquez, as the Red Sox chose Swihart their minor league Defensive Player of the Year.
Vazquez threw out a league-leading 46 percent of potential stealers last year for Portland. Swihart, at Class A Salem, also led his league (41.5 percent).
Swihart’s offense also draws attention. With a switch-hitting, line-drive stroke, Swihart hit .298 in Salem last year, with a .366 on-base percentage and .428 slugging average (.794 OPS).
“I think he has a very high ceiling with what he can do, both behind the plate and offensively,” McMillon said. “It’s going to be really nice to see his development.”
McMillon watched that development as Salem’s manager last year. Now he will mentor Swihart at Hadlock.
“You have to be careful when you use the word special, because it comes with a lot of expectations,” McMillon said. “Working with him last year, he’s definitely a hard worker. Shows up on time. Does what he’s asked. Even when he makes mistakes, you explain to him why you want something done another way, he responds to it. He has a good attitude.
“And his parents are wonderful.”
Arlan and Carla Swihart have moved back and forth with their four children, from Texas to New Mexico, back to Texas, and back to New Mexico, where Blake attended middle and high school. The family was mobile, but the values were solid.
“They taught me drive and discipline,” Blake said. “To stay humble and stay focused.”
Swihart was a stellar wrestler and basketball player but a .600 hitter on the high school baseball team. He had a scholarship to the University of Texas.
Boston drafted Swihart in the first round of the 2011 draft and offered him the big money to spurn the Longhorns. It was speculated that Swihart might switch positions because of his size (6-foot-1 but only 164 pounds when he was drafted).
But Swihart not only has worked his body into a solid 200 pounds, he’s become a very good catcher.
“He has the ability to adapt,” Epperson said.
When a high school player is awash in bonus money, he can become complacent or a prima donna.
No worries, Epperson said. “The organic passion this kid has for playing baseball is second to none.”
Drive, discipline, humility and focus will make Swihart a major leaguer; not his millions.
“I got a big bonus, but that’s not my dream,” Swihart said. “My dream is to play in the big leagues. That’s what I want to do.”
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:[email protected]Twitter: KevinThomasPPH