There were times not so long ago when the Red Sox might have looked to the free agency of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and imagined that there would be a seamless in-house transition to Ryan Lavarnway.
In 2011, Lavarnway's 34 homers -- 32 in the minors and two more in the big leagues -- and steadily improving defense had transformed perception about him. While not a standout behind the plate, he'd reached a point where his defense had become strong enough that it would allow his offense to play as a carrying tool. The team felt he could be an offense-first catcher who was good enough behind the plate.
But over the last couple of years, particularly in 2013, that view appeared to morph. His lack of quickness and athleticism behind the plate became sources of concern. He threw out 19 percent of attempted base stealers in 2013, not a horrendous mark, but still below both the American League average (26 percent) and those of fellow Sox catchers Saltalamacchia (26 percent) and David Ross (41 percent) as well as the newly signed A.J. Pierzynski (33 percent).
There also were signs that Lavarnway struggled to click with the Red Sox pitching staff. In his 22 games (an admittedly small sample) behind the plate, Red Sox pitchers had a 4.55 ERA with a .273 average, .351 OBP and .401 slugging mark; in 36 games with Ross, they had a 3.12 ERA and .226/.306/.368 line, while in 119 contests with Saltalamacchia, they had a 3.86 ERA and .250/.313/.399 line.
Lavarnway, it should be emphasized, has made enormous strides defensively since the start of his pro career. And the glimpses of his skills at the big league level have been restricted to a small sample. But at this point, you'll find few if any evaluators who will consider him an average, let alone above-average, big league catcher.
That might not be an issue if he were still hitting like it was 2011. But he's not.
A look at his last three years:
Majors: 43 PAs - .231/.302/.436, 2 HR
Minors: 503 PAs - .290/.376/.563, 32 HR
Majors: 166 PAs - .157/.211/.248, 2 HR
Minors: 367 PAs - .295/.376/.439, 8 HR
Majors: 82 PAs - .299/.329/.429, 1 HR
Minors: 214 PAs - .250/.346/.350, 3 HR
In 2011, Lavarnway hit 34 homers in 547 plate appearances. In two subsequent years, he's hit less than half that total -- 14 homers -- in 829 plate appearances (roughly 150 percent of the plate appearances he had in '11). Though he still shows the ability to hit for average and commands the strike zone in a way that lends itself to solid on-base percentages, his power -- which had appeared with the regularity of a drumbeat in his ascent up the ladder from 2009-11 -- has vanished.
Some of that, at least in 2013, might be attributable to the sporadic nature of his playing time. Nonetheless, it's a mystery that confounds evaluators and creates a Catch-22. Because Lavarnway's offense is his carrying tool, it's hard for a team to commit to him as an everyday option if he's not demonstrating an ability to impact the ball frequently; at the same time, in a backup role, it's hard for him to prove that he can impact the ball regularly.
For Lavarnway, too, there has been something of a vicious circle. For years, the improvement of his defense was the necessary prerequisite to his emergence as a valuable prospect. He focused his attention and physical training in no small degree on that aspect of the game.
But over the last two years, mindful that his offensive value has eroded steadily (as one of the slower players in the majors, the value of a single or walk for Lavarnway -- particularly with the bases empty -- is less than it might be for most other players), there have been some in the Red Sox organization (and, for that matter, scouts outside of it) who have wondered whether he's been consumed by his offense to the point of letting his relationship with pitchers suffer.
Whether or not that's true, there comes a point where perception becomes reality; if Lavarnway cannot shake the reputation of someone who places his offense before his work with a pitching staff, then it becomes more difficult for him to use a backup role to carve out a larger set of responsibilities. His offensive promise has diminished; at the same time, he has yet to win the complete trust of pitchers and coaches.
All of that has come at a time when the Sox have a compelling ensemble of catching talent making its way through the minors. The jewel of the Sox' catching prospects is 21-year-old Blake Swihart, a switch-hitting catcher who should be, at least, an above-average defender and an average hitting catcher, but who could exceed such a view of his offense by quite a bit. That means his baseline is that of an above-average catcher in the big leagues, with the possibility -- if he adds double-digit power to his game -- that he could become one of the better catchers in the game, even an All-Star.
Christian Vazquez has been turning heads defensively for years, and his offense is improving as he moves up the ladder. His ability to control the game from behind the plate is such that evaluators of multiple organizations feel that he can be a big league starter regardless of how his offense develops; not everyone is sold on that view, but his defense represents a hallmark that could make him a weapon even as a backup.
Often overlooked, meanwhile, is Dan Butler, who has risen from obscurity (he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona) to become what evaluators of several organizations consider a credible big league backup. Pitchers like throwing to him. His physical tools -- both in terms of offense and catch-and-throw abilities -- rarely turn heads, but evaluators who see him frequently gain an appreciation of his leadership behind the plate, his relationship with his pitchers and suggest that he has enough of an offensive approach to be a solid big league backup for years to come, and perhaps a big league starter at times.
The view is becoming increasingly widespread that, in something other than a guaranteed starting role, Butler -- who often has been behind other, more prominent catching prospects (including Lavarnway) while advancing up the ladder -- represents a superior big league catching depth option to Lavarnway because his offense has been steady enough (he hit .262 with a .350 OBP and .479 slugging mark along with 14 homers in 323 plate appearances in 2013) that, in combination with his defense and leadership, he fits the profile of a reliable backup who can step in when needed to start. The potential outcomes for Lavarnway are viewed as more extreme: If he rediscovers his power, he's an everyday catcher; if he doesn't, then he's not suited to be a big league backup.
There is a very real possibility that the Red Sox view the situation in the same way. If so, then it could well spell the end of Lavarnway's Red Sox tenure -- at least in the team's current catching configuration.
It's difficult to fathom the Sox carrying more than two catchers -- Pierzynski and Ross -- in the majors. The same is true at the Triple-A level, where Vazquez will need playing time but isn't considered major league-ready, suggesting that someone like Butler represents an ideal complement.
Lavarnway needs to play, and he needs to play against the highest levels. Right now, it's unclear how that might happen with the Red Sox -- who for the second straight offseason (the signing of Ross in November 2012, now the signing of Pierzynski), elected to go outside the organization rather than commit a big league roster spot to the 26-year-old.
That's not to say that the logjam of five catchers in Triple-A and the majors can't be resolved. There are three possibilities that could restore a path for Lavarnway with the Red Sox. The first would be if he was exposed to first base. If he spent some time at catcher while also getting additional playing time at both DH and first, then it could permit the Sox to have enough at-bats to keep Vazquez, Butler and Lavarnway in Pawtucket. (Lavarnway does have one option remaining, so he can be sent down to Triple-A this year.) The second would be a trade involving either Vazquez or Butler, thus resolving the logjam. The third would be if the Sox kept the entire quintet of catchers and one were to suffer an injury in spring training.
But, barring any of those developments, right now Lavarnway appears to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the Red Sox catching equation. That being the case, there's a very real possibility -- even if something less than a certainty -- that the acquisition of Pierzynski signals the beginning of the end of Lavarnway's Red Sox tenure.