Ryan Lavarnway is not necessarily surprised that he led the Red Sox farm system in RBIs and slugging percentage last year. His swing has always come naturally, he said, honed through countless hitting drills with his father growing up.
The Yale University product is not stupid, either. He knows that to make that next step in the organization he has to improve as a catcher.
“Defensively I didn’t really know how far I had to come,” Lavarnway said this week while attending the Red Sox Rookie Program. “Realizing that, seeing these guys in the major leagues and these other catchers in the minors, has kind of helped me realize where I need to go, and it helped me realize the weaknesses I hadn’t seen in my own game.”
According to Mike Hazen, the director of player development, Lavarnway could use some refinement in the technical aspects of the trade, from blocking balls in the dirt to calling a good game and handling a pitching staff.
Offense can get catchers noticed at the low and middle levels of the minor leagues. What separates some from the pack as they near the big leagues are their abilities behind the plate.
“When you get up to that Triple-A level you need to be able to come up, run the pitching staff, run the game and make sure that we are able to win that day and that pitcher has been put in a position to succeed,” Hazen said. “That will be a separator, and that will be for all those guys.
“Offense … that’s not the emphasis or the importance. If you’re going to come up it’s about running a pitching staff and managing the guys that are on the mound that day.”
Not that what Lavarnway has done with his bat is anything to sneeze at. The 23-year-old hammered 21 home runs in 106 games for low Single-A Greenville in 2009, and was the organization’s Co-Offensive player of the Year in 2010, sharing the honors with the recently traded Anthony Rizzo.
In 126 games split between high Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland, Lavarnway hit .288 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs. He also drew 70 walks and cut down dramatically on his strikeout rate, one of the best indicators of progress at the minor league level.
The back-to-back quality seasons has rocketed Lavarnway up the top prospects list. Still, unless something drastic changes, he will start out at Double-A in 2011.
“He still needs some development,” Hazen said. “I wouldn’t put anything out of the realm of possibility, but [starting at Triple-A Pawtucket] is probably not likely at this point because of some of the other guys we have on the roster who need their reps as well and we believe are going to be major league catchers as well.”
Offensively, Hazen said, Lavarnway’s work “has spoken for itself.”
Still, the catching position is one of the few that doesn’t have very many roadblocks at the upper levels. Jason Varitek may be entering his final season, and he is backup to a relatively unproven Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Mark Wagner, an average offensive catcher with plus defensive skills, and Luis Exposito, a 24-year-old who drove in 94 runs in Portland last year, are ahead of Lavarnway on the depth chart and will probably man the position at Pawtucket together.
Even if there was a glut of superstars above him blocking his way, Lavarnway would be eyeing his progression in an entirely positive light. In fact, he hopes the major league club remains as stocked as it is, regardless of what that means for some minor leaguers trying to realize their dream.
“I think we all trust Theo Epstein. He wants to put together a winning team and we respect that, and eventually, when we make it to the majors, we want to be part of a winning team, so we actually want those players here,” Lavarnway said. “These guys are future Hall of Famers, guys that we were fans of before we got drafted. I’m still a fan of many of these guys.
“The fact that there’s not many open roster spots, that just makes us want to be better so that when that spot does open up, we’re here to help these guys win.”
For Lavarnway, being better will involve improvements behind the plate. He’s certainly doing great things standing over it, with a bat in his hand.
Photo from Flickr