Prospect of the Day: Ryan Lavarnway
Jarrod Saltalamacchia currently holds down the catching job with the Boston Red Sox, with the aging Jason Varitek as the primary backup. Knocking on the door is prospect Ryan Lavarnway, currently on a tear with Triple-A Pawtucket.
Lavarnway was drafted by the Red Sox in the sixth round in 2008, out of Yale, where he holds the Ivy League record for career home runs. Scouts respected his power, but weren't sure if he would hit for much of an average in pro ball, and had serious doubts about his ability to remain behind the plate. He answered the doubts about his bat by hitting .285/.367/.540 with 21 homers for Low-A Greenville in 2009, then a combined .288/.393/.489 with 22 homers and 102 RBI between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland in 2010. He returned to Portland to begin '11 and hit a very similar .284/.360/.510 in 55 games, which earned him a promotion to Pawtucket. In 11 games since moving up, he's hit .356/.420/.667 with another three homers.
All told, Lavarnway is a career .284/.375/.509 hitter in 320 minor league games, with no deterioration in his performance as he's moved up the ladder. Indeed, if anything he's improved, easing scout concerns about a long swing by showing power to all fields. He has decent plate discipline and his strikeout rate has actually declined as he's moved up. Although he won't win batting titles in the majors, I expect that he'll carry the power forward.
The serious question has always been defense, and while Lavarnway has spent much of his career as a DH, his glove has improved. His arm is average, but a slow release inhibited his throwing early in his career, while poor footwork and lack of mobility rendered him less than reliable as a defender: he coughed up 26 passed balls in just 66 games behind the plate in 2009. However, he cut that down to 11 in 53 defensive games last year, and this year he's reduced the rate even further to four passed balls and just one error in 32 games behind the plate.
He's caught a respectable 36% of runners trying to steal on him this year. Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen tells me that Lavarnway has made "very good strides behind the plate with a continuously improving feel working with pitchers and calling games." Hazen also praises Lavarnway's continued improvement with receiving and blocking, which clearly shows up in the statistics.
Although Lavarnway will never win gold gloves, if he maintains his current progress he can be at least adequate defensively, while providing considerable power on the offensive side. We should see him in Fenway later this year, and he could take a larger role on the major league roster in 2012.