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Lavarnway continues steady rise in Red Sox system

06.13.11 at 5:59 pm ET

The Red Sox‘ decision to trade minor league catcher Mike McKenry was driven less by anything that the 26-year-old had done since being acquired from the Rockies at the end of spring training than by the performance of one of the top hitters in the Sox’ minor league system.

McKenry, acquired in exchange for right-hander Daniel Turpen at the end of spring training, had put together a respectable line in Triple-A Pawtucket. He was hitting .274 with a .369 OBP, .421 slugging mark, .790 OPS and three homers in 29 games. But the Sox were willing to send him to Pittsburgh (in exchange for a player to be named or cash) because Ryan Lavarnway gave them little choice but to promote him.

Lavarnway started slowly in Double-A this year, hitting .216 with a .272 OBP, .365 slugging mark and .636 OPS in 18 games in April. Yet those numbers were misleading.

“He wasn’€™t hitting at all in April, but we were getting reports saying, ‘€˜Don’€™t worry about it ‘€“ this guy is smoking the ball,'” said Sox VP of Player Personnel Mike Hazen. “Things started to fall ‘€“ more often, over the wall ‘€“ in May and June.”

Indeed, the 6-foot-4 23-year-old has dominated Double-A pitching after the season’s first month. In 37 games since the start of May, he was hitting .343 with a .408 OBP, .590 slugging mark, .998 OPS, 11 homers and 19 walks. He was hitting for average, hitting for power and controlling the strike zone, something he’s done almost from the moment that he was promoted to Portland almost a year ago.

In 99 games with the Sea Dogs since last summer, Lavarnway had a .284 average, .375 OBP, .503 slugging mark, .878 OPS and 22 homers — marks that are strikingly in line with his performance in parts of four pro seasons, during which he’s hit .281/.373/.503/.876.

“I’€™d say he has a pretty good handle on the competition there. It’€™s time to challenge him,” said Hazen. “This is a pretty good bat here, and he needs to face better pitching.”

Of course, the Ivy League’s all-time leader in homers (with 33 during his three-year career at Yale) offense has been incredibly consistent. He has been one of the best offensive performers at three straight stops, first in Greenville of the South Atlantic League in 2009, then last season at both Hi-A Salem and Double-A Portland, and again this season in Portland. He also made a solid impression during spring training, going 3-for-9 with a double and homer.

But it is Lavarnway’s defense that will determine his future big league role. In that respect, after he made major strides in 2010, the Sox suggest that they have seen continued progress this year, even as they acknowledge that there .

In 26 games behind the plate this year, he has gunned down 14 of 37 runners trying to steal, a 37.8 percent rate that is among the best in the Sox’ system. Interestingly, he has thrown out a higher percentage of base stealers than teammate Tim Federowicz, who is viewed as a terrific defensive catcher, and Lavarnway has also committed just one error this year (compared to seven by Federowicz).

“On the defensive side, he’€™s continuing to show more consistency. I don’€™t think it’€™s picture perfect. I don’€™t know that it’€™s ever going to be picture perfect. But the guy’€™s thrown out a lot of baserunners, has one of the best caught-stealing numbers in our system,” said Hazen. “We just felt like he’€™s been in Double-A for close to a year, and we felt like it was sort of time to challenge him.”

Lavarnway will be back in a familiar position with the PawSox in Triple-A, splitting his playing time with Luis Exposito. The two were partnered last year in Portland; previously, Lavarnway had shared responsibilities behind the plate with Federowicz in both Greenville and Salem. Indeed, the only time that he’s enjoyed everyday work as a catcher (rather than as a catcher/DH) was in the second half of 2009 with Greenville.

Yet the Sox believe — or at least hope — that catchers can actually benefit and further hone their skillswhen not catching everyday.

“It’€™s a double-edged sword. With the technical work that he still needs ‘€“ receiving, blocking, all that other stuff ‘€“ he gets more work in the role that he’€™s in than if he were catching everyday,” said Hazen. “When you have a catcher who’€™s catching six days a week, you’€™ve got to back off the work. You can’€™t have him out there doing tons of blocking drills everyday. You’€™re going to kill that guy. Where if he gets two days off in a row, he plays two days, you can put in a pretty aggressive workout on one of those days, work on some of the technical aspects. It’€™s almost like a pitcher throwing a bullpen. He can really work on some stuff.”

The Sox also expect that Lavarnway can get more game experience behind the plate in winter ball, just as he did in 2010 when he played in the Arizona Fall League. But for now, they felt that he needed to be in Triple-A in order to continue his development, something that led to the team to deal McKenry and promote Lavarnway, who makes his Pawtucket debut on Monday.

Read More: mike mckenry, ryan lavarnway,
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