Ryan Lavarnway looks like a baseball player. He has loved baseball all his life and began playing when he was a very little kid growing up in Woodland Hills, California. He hasn't stopped playing since.
When Lavarnway was a little boy his teacher suggested to his parents that Lavarnway get involved in team sports. The teacher thought it would be a good way for the little guy to learn how to share. Lavarnway has called himself a "super competitive kid." He actually started playing baseball at age 4 and he credits the teacher with helping shape his future.
Now, approaching his 24th birthday in August, Lavarnway may be on the brink of becoming a major league ballplayer. He's certainly giving the Red Sox reason to be optimistic about his future, and it won't be long until he takes aim at the Green Monster.
The Red Sox have been known to be looking for catching help this entire season. The poor first couple months of newcomer Jarrod Saltalamacchia created the need to use veteran receiver Jason Varitek far more than the team had planned. Varitek has shown some pop in his bat, but he clearly isn't the long-term answer behind the plate anymore. Frankly, it doesn't seem Salty is either. Even with a half-season of less than stellar production from the critical catching position, the Red Sox have reversed the terrible April start. Now they have taken their rightful position among the top contenders in the American League. Imagine what they could do if the catching position were solidified?
Lavarnway has a prototypical catcher's physique. He's a 6-foot-4 220-pound right-handed power hitter. No doubt he is dreaming about the fabled "Green Monster" as a target for his missiles.
Lavarnway played third base at El Camino Real High School in California. Major league pitcher Randy Wolf and Oakland A's first baseman Conor Jackson also call El Camino Real their alma mater.
Lavarnway decided to attend Yale University where he majored in philosophy. Philosophy. He played baseball for Yale while studying the works of the world's most profound philosophers. That itself makes Lavarnway a bit unusual. There aren't an abundance of philosophy majors in professional baseball. He engaged his teammates in intellectual conversations while playing in the outfield for the Ivy League school as a freshman in 2007. In fact, that year he hit an amazing .467/14/55 and was named to the All-America team as a third-team outfielder. He was an Ivy League All-Star as well. Sensing he didn't have the speed needed for the outfield if he were to make professional baseball a career, he asked his coach if he could convert to catching. Request granted. He became a catcher.
In his 2008 season at Yale, Lavarnway called attention to his bat by leading the Ivy League in home runs, RBI, walks, slugging percentage and on-base percentage; as a catcher. Major league clubs were watching.
The Red Sox made Ryan Lavarnway their sixth-round selection (No. 202 overall) in the 2008 first -year player draft. Lavarnway was rewarded for his lifelong love affair with baseball by signing a $325,000 contract.
Lavarnway's first professional year was one to forget. He hit .211 with two home runs in 71 at-bats for short-season Lowell. Sicne then, he has gotten better offensively as he has progressed in classifications.
Last season for example, Lavarnway was named to the Carolina League All-Star Team. He split his season between High-A Salem in the Carolina League (.289/14/63) and Double-A Portland of the Eastern League (.285/8/39), hitting 22 homers and driving in 102 runs in two classifications will get a player some attention. Following his clunker in his first season of pro ball, Lavarnway has been very consistent. He was named the Red Sox Minor League Offensive Player of the Year.
Like Reds catching prospect Devin Mesoraco (featured in this column last week), Lavarnway played in the 2010 Arizona Fall League. He hit .268/3/12 in 82 at-bats covering 21 games. His power bat and his ability to make good, solid, consistent contact highlighted his season. Again, like Mesoraco, it was his defense and his inability to block balls in the dirt that cost Lavarnway greater notoriety in his AFL season. His defensive problems took much of the luster off his offensive performance.
Lavarnway and Mesoraco, are often compared when prospect catchers are discussed. Last week I made the point that Mesoraco does not use the lower part of his body enough in his swing. Lavarnway is just the opposite. He makes very good use of his solid catcher's frame in getting strength and torque from his legs and trunk. He is a good contact hitter with the ability to drive the ball out of the park with a fairly long and slightly uppercut swing. Lavarnway hits from a slight crouch from which he uncoils and covers the outside corner very well, and really punishes pitchers that get too much of the plate. He has the ability to hit the ball to all fields because of his strength and outside corner plate coverage. If his defense is considered a problem, Lavarnway's power could be reason enough for him to be considered as a designated hitter as he gets to the major leagues. In fact, he has been a successful DH in his minor league career. With David Ortiz getting older, the Red Sox could have a perfect combination catcher/DH in their system.
On the negative side, Lavarnway has shown some difficulty hitting inside pitches. Because he hits from a crouch and because he has a big, but slowish body, he has trouble turning quickly enough to handle pitches that are in on his hands. Certainly he can continue to make adjustments and learn to hit that pitch. Hitting inside pitches to the left field wall at Fenway will be important for his success in the big leagues.
Not unlike Mesoraco, defense for Lavarnway continues to be a challenge. He isn't agile behind the plate and his footwork, reaction time and movement are slow. He has limited range from side to side. While improvement is being made, he still has difficulty blocking balls in the dirt, just like Mesoraco. In fact, in the Arizona Fall League, Lavarnway stabbed at balls far too often rather than getting his body in front and blocking balls in the dirt. Major league pitchers throw balls in the dirt on purpose and Lavarnway still has room for improvement in that area.
So far since his promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket this season, Ryan Lavarnway is hitting as follows:
.338/5/18 1.030 OPS over 21 games and 80 at-bats.
Clearly, Ryan Lavarnway is an offensive threat in the Red Sox's system. Questions remain about his defense behind the plate. The guy that hit 33 homers in three years at Yale probably won't be denied an opportunity to hit at the big league level. If he continues to improve behind the plate, it will be difficult to keep him out of a lineup loaded with good hitters. That should be a welcome relief for Red Sox fans who have been waiting and hoping for improved offense from the catching position.
As to which is the better prospect, Mesoraco or Lavarnway, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Some scouts prefer one, some the other.
Frankly, they are very, very similar. Both will be hitting in offensive friendly parks, and both should be very helpful to their respective clubs. The situation with Yankees prospect Jesus Montero comes to mind. It is defense, or the lack thereof that keeps Montero from the major leagues. The ultimate answer for Lavarnway and Mesoraco will rest in defensive improvement. Trusting the catcher behind the plate is crucial, and both must continue to improve. It will be very difficult for Boston to resist the temptation to have the big bat of Lavarnway taking three or four shots at the Green Monster 81 games per year.
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Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a graduate of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix.