40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profile- Ryan Lavarnway

The third catcher on the Red Sox 40 man roster is the up-and-coming young slugger Ryan Lavarnway. The 24 year old prospect spent the 2011 season destroying AA and AAA pitching before getting  called up for a late season cup of coffee in mid-August.  Across the three levels he hit 34 home runs and 25 doubles, driving in 101 runs. His defense behind the plate remains a work in progress. The acquisition of Kelly Shoppach helps to buy Lavarnway some time at AAA to improve his catching to start 2011. If he does manage to transform himself into a serviceable catcher, he could spend the second half of the season on the major league roster, serving as an extra right-handed bat and learn to work with a major league pitching staff.

Scouts have been quick to question Lavarnway’s ability to stick behind the plate and some, like Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks, are not convinced that his bat is really strong enough to survive a move to 1B or DH. First is locked up inBoston by Adrian Gonzalez for the foreseeable future, but DH may be a possibility should Lavarnway’s catching prove too much of a liability.Boston seems to believe in his catching ability, however, and he will get ever chance to become a catcher in the majors.

Hitting

Lavarnway has been a plus hitter every season since struggling in his first professional at age 20 in the New York-Penn League. He has shown excellent plate discipline at every level, never posting a walk rate lower than the 9.8% rate he put up in 2008. He is somewhat prone to striking out, typically hovering around 20% as a minor leaguer. However, the biggest reason to get excited about Ryan Lavarnway is his incredible power. In four minor league seasons he has a .237ISO. Critics have questioned his ability to make consistent contact despite a very solid .284 batting average in the  minors, but his on base skills and power should help him become an above average hitter even with great contact ability, similar to a player like Carlos Pena.

Defense

If Lavarnway was ready to catch at the major league level the Red Sox would not have needed to pick up Kelly Shoppach to help off-set Jarrod Saltalamachhia’s struggles against lefties. Unfortunately, he is not quite there. His brief appearance in the major leagues was actually encouraging, as Sox pitchers were fairly positive about his work behind the plate, but the weakness were also apparent. Most noticeably, he tended to stab at the ball some and presented a less then steady target.

Scouts have never been too high on his throwing ability, but his minor league CS% is actually a very reasonable 32%. Even so, he is rated at 4 runs below average by Total Zone as a minor leaguer. His footwork is another point of concern for experts and it is probably safe to say that he isn’t going to be the next Yadier Molina or Ivan Rodriquez.

Under the current ownership, Boston has put a premium on offense at catcher, acquiring Victor Martinez in 2009 and this season building a promising lefty/ righty platoon. Ryan Lavarnway may not live up to the high standard Jason Varitek set as Boston’s catcher over the past 15 years, but he could be a great long term solution as a power hitting, bat-first catcher. This season will likely sort out the questions around his defense enough to show the team if he can stick at catcher. If he does pull it out, Boston will put another dangerous bat into baseball’s best lineup.

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