It was a weekend in which the Red Sox confronted a power hitter on whom they once gambled in a trade and lost. In Seattle, the team ran into Wily Mo Pena, the outfielder whose prodigious power potential once prompted the Sox to deal away pitcher Bronson Arroyo in what was arguably the worst trade ever made under GM Theo Epstein.
Pena never panned out with the Sox. He ended up being dealt away after less than two seasons in Boston, and has bounced around independent ball, the minors and majors ever since. He remains a player with unrivaled raw power who has never been able to translate tools into results on a consistent basis in the majors.
But that’s ancient history. Of arguably more interest during the weekend series was another player whom the Sox did not have to face in Seattle.
In the three-team deal that saw the Mariners send Erik Bedard and Josh Fields to Boston, Seattle had initially set its sights on a player who has enjoyed one of the most impressive offensive seasons by a Sox minor leaguer in years.
The Mariners needed a major league-ready player as part of the Bedard deal, and with a pronounced need at catcher, it was obvious that they would ask about Sox catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway. And it was just as obvious that the Red Sox would respond with what one source familiar with the negotiations characterized as a “quick no.”
It was the Sox’ unwillingness to trade the catcher that set in motion the involvement of the Dodgers as a third party to the deal. While the Sox were willing to include Chih-Hsien Chiang, they needed to land Trayvon Robinson from the Dodgers for minor league catcher Tim Federowicz and pitcher Stephen Fife. The Sox then spun Robinson to Seattle (who promoted the potential power-hitting outfielder immediately to the majors) along with Chiang for Bedard.
Lavarnway, meanwhile, was unlikely to go anywhere. According to a major league source, the Sox received numerous inquiries on him from both American League and National League teams, but in most instances, he was off limits, for obvious reasons.
Lavarnway is amidst his first slump since getting promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket in June. In August, he’s now 4-for-37 (.108) with 11 strikeouts and a .498 OPS. However, his numbers in 53 games in Triple-A remain gaudy.
The 24-year-old is hitting .307 with a .390 OBP, .609 slugging mark and .999 OPS along with 15 homers since his June promotion to the PawSox. Between Double-A and Triple-A this year, he has already amassed 29 homers this year, the most by a Sox minor leaguer since Earl Snyder hit 36 in 2004, and tied for fourth most in the minors this season.
Yet while Lavarnway already does have a career high in homers this year, his performance at the highest level of the minors has been very much in line with his Red Sox career. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Yale product has been easily the most consistent offensive player in the Red Sox system.
Before his eruption to open his career in Pawtucket, his performance moving up the ladder had been steady. In a full year at Single-A Greenville (2009), a half-year at High-A Salem (2010) and partial seasons in Double-A Portland in 2010 and 2011, Lavarnway had batting averages between .284 and .288, on-base percentages that ranged from .360 to .395 and slugging marks that ranged from .487 to .540. He had 21 homers in 2009 and 22 last year before setting a new career high this season.
Based on the consistency of his performance, talent evaluators both inside and outside the Red Sox organization consider his bat major league-ready – part of the reason why Seattle was drawn to him.
“He’s not in the big leagues. He’s still facing Triple-A pitching. Who knows at that next level what the transition will look like?” Sox farm director Mike Hazen noted recently. “But I have no doubt he could go up [to the majors] and handle it offensively with his approach and swing.”
Yet the Sox have remained patient – and are likely to continue to do so – with regards to giving Lavarnway an opportunity in the majors. In an interesting twist, that fact reflects the organization’s high regard for Lavarnway’s future.
When the Sox drafted Lavarnway out of Yale in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, they did so believing that he would hit (after all, as a sophomore, he led NCAA Division 1 in both batting average and slugging), but with little optimism about his ability to develop defensively to the point where he could be a big league catcher. After all, he had switched from the outfield to catcher as a sophomore, was limited to serving as a DH for much of his junior year by a hand injury and remained extremely crude when he was behind the plate.
In his time as a professional, however, Lavarnway has achieved what members of the organization describe as little short of stunning gains as a defensive catcher. He has become more athletic behind the plate, resulting in across-the-board improvements, particularly in his technique.
Between Double-A and Triple-A, he has thrown out 35 percent of would-be base stealers this year while committing just one error. The Sox have consistently seen him get pop times on home-to-second throws of 1.95-1.97 seconds, in line with a big league average. His blocking and receiving have both made significant advances thanks to his improved setup, athleticism and flexibility behind the plate.
“He’s so damn accurate. You never see him misfire because of the ability to get his legs under him and get the proper alignment. He’s got good throwing mechanics and put the ball right where he wants it,” said Sox roving catching instructor Chad Epperson. “With Lavarnway, you realize, ‘Damn, he’s just a results guy.’
“That’s the bottom line. If you put him and [former Sox minor league catcher Tim] Federowicz and [Triple-A catcher Luis] Exposito and watched them do a showcase, you’re going to look at Exposito and Federowicz and grade them out higher just on the look. But at the end of the day, when a manager goes out and fills out his game report, Lavarnway’s caught everything, he’s blocked everything and he’s thrown a guy out. You can’t turn your back on that.
“He may not be that flashy catcher, but he is a results guy, and at the end of the day, that’s what a big league club wants – results.”
That said, Lavarnway is not a finished product. One talent evaluator of another AL organization suggested that Lavarnway could be a DH in the majors now, and that while he believes that the prospect has a future behind the plate, the catcher needs more time to develop. That is especially true of game-calling, where the complexity of handling pitchers’ repertoires in the upper levels of the minors increases dramatically – a fact that Lavarnway himself acknowledges.
“I think game-calling is something that, as I play more, and play more with guys who have very good command of their stuff, it’s just going to continue to get better,” said Lavarnway. “Physically, the actual catching aspect gets easier [while moving up in the minors]. Pitch-calling is where it gets more complex.
“You have guys who throw four, five, six pitches to both sides of the plate. You have 12 options. You don’t want to have a guy up there shaking his head all day. Getting with him before the game, talking to the other catchers, formulating a gameplan becomes more important.”
Throughout the system, both evaluators and pitchers who have worked with Lavarnway suggest that he has made obvious strides, even as there is an acknowledgment that there are more that must be made. Yet the 24-year-old insists that he will do whatever it takes to establish his credentials as a solid defensive backstop who is capable of delivering well above-average offense.
“I do want to be known as a complete player. I’ve worked really hard to get myself to where I am. I’m going to continue to do that, because I don’t just want to be a bat,” said Lavarnway. “Being a quality defensive catcher in the big leagues is something that I want to do more than anything else. I’ll do what it takes to get there.”
Notably, that includes waiting.
In the past, the Sox have promoted both position players and pitchers from Double-A to the majors. But whereas the difference between Double-A and the big leagues might be relatively minimal for an outfielder, it can be huge for a catcher, particularly given the issues of game-calling.
That is something that can be addressed only with experience. And as of now, Lavarnway has caught fewer than 200 games in the minors while splitting signal-calling duties at virtually every level at which he’s played. (The Sox often like to split catching duties at different levels to give their catchers the opportunity to do drill and technical work on alternating days on which they serve as DH.)
If Lavarnway were an outfielder or first baseman, the Red Sox might have already commenced an experiment to explore his versatility at other positions on the field, thus increasing the number of potential avenues to the majors for him. But in the case of Lavarnway, the Sox’ conviction that he can be a starting catcher in the majors in the long term has made it more difficult to engage in such experiments.
Simply put, the team remains committed to the idea that he needs time behind the plate in order to maximize his long-term potential. If that means a slower path to the majors, then so be it. Lavarnway buys into the approach.
“Getting there initially, as much as it is a passion and I have a sense of urgency about it, the biggest thing I’ve heard from player development personnel and other players is that the hardest part is to stay there,” Lavarnway said. “I want to make sure that whenever I do break in, if and when, that I’m ready to be there and I belong there and I can continue to play there at a high level.”
Right now, he is showing the potential to do just that. If Lavarnway’s defense develops to the point where he is considered close to average behind the plate, then his track record as a hitter suggests that he could become a well above-average major league catcher.
The average big league catcher in 2011 entered Sunday hitting .244 with a .315 OBP, .382 slugging mark and .697 OPS; Lavarnway’s performance in the minors suggests he can blow past such modest numbers.
It is part of the reason why the Sox protected him in talks with clubs at the trade deadline. Potential big league backups are expendable (hence the ability of the club to part with Federowicz, whose bat was not going to permit him to be a starter for the Red Sox). A player with a chance to emerge as an above-average big league starter at a position where offense is at a premium is not.
And right now, in both word and deed, the Sox are showing that they believe Lavarnway can be just such a catcher.
“We’re very confident that he’s a future major league catcher,” said Hazen. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. … [But] a lot of those same people [who doubt Lavarnway’s defensive abilities] probably thought that Kevin Youkilis couldn’t hit, and a lot of major league scouts that are talking probably said Dustin Pedroia won’t be a big league player.
“Given his makeup, his work ethic, where he’s come and the time he’s put in for the last four years, if there’s any guy I’m betting on to achieve his goal of being a major league catcher, it’s that guy,” he added.
Had the Sox not believed in that notion, then Lavarnway might have been in the opposing dugout this weekend, alongside Wily Mo Pena. Instead, he remains in Pawtucket, with his first big league opportunity in Boston not yet having arrived, but looming on the not-too-distant horizon.