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September Could Mean Big Things for Ryan Lavarnway & the Red Sox Catching Future

September 1, 2011

September 1st means a number of things to Major League teams. To start, it signifies the beginning of the final full month of the regular season. Playoff runs have taken shape for some teams while others have started to look ahead to the offseason and even next year. Rosters expand, allowing teams to carry extra pitchers, a speedster off the bench, an extra defensive replacement, or the simply opportunity to give a young prospect his first taste of the big leagues.

Ryan Lavarnway won’t be getting his first taste of the big leagues when the Boston Red Sox recall him sometime today, as expected. He has already been with the big league club this season, appearing in 7 games with the team in August. In 27 plate appearances he batted .304/.407/.391 with 2 doubles (one was about as close as you can come in Kansas City to a home run, without it actually being a home run) and 3 RBI. He walked 4 times versus 6 strikeouts. Most importantly, he looked like he belonged.

Prior to his callup, Lavarnway had hit an eye-opening 30 home runs while batting .293/.372/.559 in 417 at bats, split almost evenly between Double-A and Triple-A. The Orioles’ Matt Wieters, one of the top catching prospects we’ve seen over the past few seasons, hit 27 home runs at those same leagues (Eastern, International) in 2008. That’s not to compare the two as prospects – though it does help illustrate how difficult it is for a catcher to go deep that many times over the course of a full minor league season.

A quick glance over the past several seasons only turns up two catchers who managed to hit 30 home runs over a full season in the minors. The Blue Jays’ J.P. Arencibia hit 32 home runs last season, primarily with Triple-A Las Vegas in the very hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. The Rangers’ Mike Napoli is the other, hitting 31 home runs in 2005. He spent nearly the entire season with the Angels’ Double-A affiliate. The rarity of the feat, and fact that a significant portion of those at bats came at Triple-A, makes Lavarnway’s accomplishment all the more impressive.

Naturally, of course, the question likely has begun to arise as to what Lavarnway’s presence and development mean for the team’s catching situation going forward.

Entering the 2011 season this was one of the biggest question marks facing the highly favored Red Sox. Team Captain Jason Varitek was entering the final season of his contract and seemingly nearing the end of his career. Sharing the duties with him would be Jarrod Saltalamacchia, once considered alongside Wieters as one of the game’s best catching prospects who has struggled at and behind the plate throughout his career. Salty won’t be a free agent until after the 2014 season.

The pair has been more than surprising for the team over the course of the season. Varitek has hit .234/.310/.432 with 9 HR and 29 RBI in 216 plate appearances over 58 games. Salty has chipped in a .252/.312/.469 line with 13 HR and 46 RBI in 317 plate appearances over 85 games. Combined the production the team has received from the position ranks in the Top 10 in all of Major League Baseball.

Varitek’s value to this team extends beyond what he does at the plate. He has long been considered one of the premier game callers and an extraordinary presence in the clubhouse. Why else would he be the team’s Captain? But sentiment aside, the time might have come to let a new regime lead the team (Yes, I have a likely candidate in mind. But who replaces Varitek as Captain is another discussion for another post.) and replace the veteran with a younger, cheaper, potentially more productive option.

Of course, the possibility does exist that both the Red Sox and Varitek want to reach an agreement on a contract for one more season. In such an event, it would seem likely that it would mean an end to David Ortiz’s time in Boston in order to free up the DH at bats for a player like Lavarnway. Or, Lavarnway could, in the unlikeliest of situations, become trade bait.

Resigning Varitek with the intent of using Lavarnway as a DH option likely isn’t the best route for the organization to take.  Such a decision would make the most sense if they were to pair Lavarnway with someone like Lars Anderson as the primary DH. Lavarnway could see some games behind the plate. Anderson could see some at bats at first base (and potentially right field?). The pair would essentially replace Ortiz and Darnell McDonald on next year’s roster. However, I wouldn’t expect the Red Sox to carry three catchers over the course of the entire season – rendering this suggestion highly unlikely.

The remaining games on the season’s schedule will be interesting to follow with regards to how much playing time is given to each of the three catchers. Lavarnway, who principally DH’ed during his first stint with the club could see some at bats there again over the coming weeks. It seems certain that Salty will be back next season. How Lavarnway and Varitek finish the season could help answer the question of which catcher will be a part of the 2012 team.

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From → Boston Red Sox

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