Minor-League Monday: Ryan Lavarnway

When you start looking at prospects, you try to find guys with multiple high-grade tools. The reason is pretty simple. If the player has multiple tools, then he’ll be able to help the team in multiple ways and won’t harm it, and if one of the tools doesn’t develop as previously thought, then at least that player can help in other ways. Players with only one tool need to have a really, really good tool to make it because the team has to bank on that tool coming through. Ryan Lavarnway was one of those guys coming into the season, but boy has his one tool, his bat, really come through.

Lavarnway was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 6th round of the 2008 draft, and after a rough introduction to pro ball in that season, Lavarnway has raked in the Red Sox organization. He hit .285/.367/.540 in Low-A in 2009, and he hit .288/.393/.489 in High-A and AA the next season. The young man actually hit better in his AA stop, but the Red Sox decided that it would be best for him to start 2011 in AA. Lavarnway, however, demonstrated that the cautiousness was unwarranted as he blasted AA pitching to the tune of .284/.360/.510. Seemingly just to show how awesome he is, Lavarnway has, since, obliterated AAA to the amazing tune of .381/.450/.769. Oh, and I’ve forgotten to mention something. Lavarnway is a catching prospect, not a first base prospect.

Well, perhaps “catching prospect” is a bit too strong of a phrase for the soon-to-be 24-year old. While he obviously had a very good bat, his defense was so atrocious that  only John Sickels had him ranked in the top 10 of Red Sox prospects, at number 9. Kevin Goldstein placed him 15th, and Baseball America ranked him 16th in the organization. All of them had major concerns about Lavarnway behind the plate. When he entered pro ball, he was considered a “bat-only” prospect in the strictest of terms, but after a few years of work, he’s become merely bad behind the plate. How has he fared this season? In a recent Keith Law chat, he stated flatly, “Red Sox believe he’s a catcher, but I don’t believe anyone else does.”

Now, we arrive at the same question we ask about Jesus Montero. Is he serviceable enough behind the plate that the team can put his bat into the lineup? Law obviously doesn’t think so, but Lavarnway has improved fairly dramatically. After 26 passed balls in his first full season, he only had 11 in 2010, and he only has 6 this season. His caught stealing percentages have also gone from 28 to 33 to 35, so he’s also getting better there. The problem, of course, is how he’ll handle major-league pitching. They throw harder, have more break to their pitches, and there’s more to think about as a major-league catcher. It’s also worth noting that Lavarnway has only caught in half of his teams’ games this season while DHing the rest, and if he can’t catch 120-130 games, then they probably need to find another spot for him.

Our final question, as always, is if the prospect is blocked, and while it seems the Red Sox have looked for catchers continuously for the past couple seasons, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek are actually doing pretty well this season. Saltalamacchia’s .249/.318/.448 line doesn’t look impressive, but it’s actually a little bit better than league-average. For a catcher, that’s awesome, and it’s helped him become a 2-3 win catcher, which is just fine. Varitek, on the other side of the platoon, has also done a fine job hitting .236/.317/.403, and he’s been worth 0.7 wins so far. Add these two guys together, and you essentially have a 3-4 win catcher, which is really good. Varitek, however, is almost 40 years old, and the Red Sox could choose to let him walk and have Salty and Lavarnway similarly split catching duties next season in order to break in Lavarnway.

But I wouldn’t expect to see Lavarnway this season, unless there’s an injury. Saltalamacchia and Varitek are doing just fine, and I don’t think the Red Sox want to worry about having a rookie catcher in the playoffs. If Lavarnway had been the catcher all season, I wouldn’t worry about the “rookie catcher” meme, but throwing him into a playoff situation at the very beginning of his career seems like a terrible idea. Granted, he might be a nice bench bat to add in September/October.