BRADENTON, Fla. — Ryan Lavarnway has a few things working in his favor as he learns first base for the first time this spring.
Lavarnway has the benefit of working with Red Sox infield instructor Brian Butterfield, who is one of the most highly regarded coaches in Major League Baseball, and he shares a clubhouse with Mike Napoli, whose transition from catcher to first base last season went about as smoothly as Boston could have hoped.
“Today was the first time we talked about it, and he had some good pointers for me,” Lavarnway said Monday of picking Napoli’s brain. “He had a lot of good feedback. One of the main things we talked about was his setup pre-pitch and how it took him a while to find something that he liked, and it’s different for everybody and I have to find what I like.”
Lavarnway enters 2014 with 88 games of major league experience and 503 games of minor league experience since being drafted by the Red Sox in the sixth round in 2008. Lavarnway, who played first base in Monday’s spring training exhibition against the Pittsburgh Pirates, either has played catcher or served as a designated hitter in all 591 contests, meaning this spring represents a whole new experience for the 26-year-old.
“Well, I went from zero to where I am now, so it’s pretty good I guess,” Lavarnway said of his progress at first base. “My feedback’s all been good. I still am not at a point where I know what’s good and what’s bad, so the feedback’s been good for me.”
Lavarnway once was considered an elite catching prospect in the Red Sox system, but some struggles at the major league level in 2012 and the emergence of other minor league backstops within the organization have lessened the hype surrounding the Yale graduate. The Red Sox are experimenting with Lavarnway at first base in the hopes of increasing his versatility — and thus his value — on a team in which his future is undefined.
“It’s been great. I go through the day as a catcher as I normally would in all my other years, and then when that is all done I go find Butter and get some one-on-one work,” Lavarnway said. “When we took infield at the Twins’ place the other day, that was the first time I had been on the field with all the other infielders and all the other moving parts. It’s been fun.”
Perhaps the biggest concern surrounding Lavarnway is his drop-off in power. He smacked just four home runs in 257 at-bats between the majors and Triple-A last season — a far cry from the 32 bombs he compiled in 435 at-bats between Triple-A and Double-A in 2011. A switch to first base might enable Lavarnway to grow more comfortable offensively, as his defensive obligations won’t be as complex.
For now, though, Lavarnway is focused on developing at both positions, even if there are some notable adjustments.
“There’s just a lot of moving parts (at first base),” Lavarnway said. “When I’m catching, my feet are stationary and I’ll make a play from there. Making plays with my feet is new.”
Lavarnway could grow more comfortable at first base before long if he continues to use his resources.
Photo via Twitter/@Ecrbaseball