EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 20, 2011

The future at catcher looks bright for the Sox

On Baseball
Christopher Smith

CHESTNUT HILL — Catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway was named the Red Sox' 2010 minor league co-offensive Player of the Year, but he doesn't seem that impressed with himself.

"I was minor league offensive player of the year, but I'm still not a big leaguer," Lavarnway, 23, said after working out at the Red Sox Rookie Program at Boston College's Alumni Stadium yesterday.

Lavarnway was joined by 10 other Red Sox prospects, including another talented young catcher, Tim Federowicz. A philosophy major at Yale, Lavarnway hit an NCAA-leading .467 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs in 43 games as a sophomore.

He said he still must become a more consistent hitter and a better defensive catcher.

You are certainly going to hear Lavarnway's name a great deal in the coming years. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder might be the most promising Red Sox catching prospect.

He is being pushed by Federowicz, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2008, one round after Lavarnway.

Lavarnway sure can hit. He batted .288 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland last year. He then appeared in 21 games for Peoria of the Arizona Fall League and hit .268 with three homers and 12 RBIs.

Lavarnway also had a strong 2009 season at Single-A Greenville, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 87 RBIs.

"He's got a tremendous approach at the plate," Boston's Director of Player Development Mike Hazen said. "He's got good plate discipline. He's got right-handed raw power, which is something ... we haven't necessarily been the best at developing."

Federowicz, meanwhile, is a terrific defensive catcher but still must improve offensively. He hit .253 with four home runs and 61 RBIs and smashed a team-high 34 doubles at Salem this past season.

Lavarnway and Federowicz both likely are a couple of years away from being big-league ready but overall, Red Sox fans should be quite pleased to hear the organization is developing strong, young talent at catcher.

It's a position that is a giant question mark right now at the major league level. Jason Varitek, who'll turn 39 in April, is aging and 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia regressed offensively and defensively after suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome as a result of a car accident in June 2009.

Learning the position

After his freshman year at Yale, he realized he was a pro prospect offensively, but he didn't have enough foot speed to play outfield in pro baseball. So he asked his coach to switch him to catcher.

Lavarnway has spent time watching video of Varitek and the Twins' Joe Mauer.

"Those are my two favorite catchers," he said. "They are bigger-bodied guys so we've got to do things a little bit different: getting low into that squat, being able to get out of the umpire's way and receiving the ball in the right fashion."

Last offseason the Woodland Hills, Calif., native worked with longtime neighbor and Florida Marlins catcher Brett Hayes. Lavarnway was an improved defensive catcher this past season, throwing out 36 percent of would-be base stealers as compared to 28.4 percent in 2009.

He also wants to work more on his consistency at the plate this year.

"I think I had a five-week span where I didn't hit any home runs (last year)," he said. "I will try to cut that out this year."

Friendly rivalry

Lavarnway has also learned some from watching Federowicz.

Federowicz played college baseball at North Carolina and was drafted by the Red Sox in the seventh round in 2008.

"Watching him go about his business and how it's so easy for him to do things the right way (defensively), I think at first it helped me realize how far I had to come (as a catcher)," Lavarnway said.

The two were teammates at Lowell in 2008, Greenville in 2009, and at Salem in 2010 before Lavarnway's promotion to Portland.

"Tim is a great guy, and I think that makes the situation that we've been put in a lot easier," Lavarnway said. "We have a friendly competition going on. We play cards as teammates in the locker room and when we do drills together, here's the guy who is trying to compete for the same spot on the major league roster that I am. I think that we kind of help push each other to bring our level of play to the next level."

Federowicz added: "There's a lot of competition there. But we also have to realize it's not a competition. It's about us developing."

Hazen said Lavarnway's work ethic can take him a long way.

"Probably, if not the hardest, one of the hardest working players we've had," Hazen said. "He's made himself into what we've seen today. So we feel like he's going to continue make himself into an even better defensive player. I think the blocking, receiving — the technical aspects of catching — certainly still need to improve as they do with any minor league player."