|‘Different situation’ awaits Ryan Lavarnway in spring training||01.19.12 at 6:03 pm ET|
A year ago, Ryan Lavarnway drifted quietly and almost unnoticed through the Red Sox big league clubhouse during spring training. He was a non-roster invitee to big league camp, a reflection of the fact that he enjoyed the high regard of the organization but also of the fact that the club needed catchers on hand to manage all of the bullpen sessions being thrown by pitchers.
Lavarnway recognized his place and made a point of arriving early everyday — usually before the sun had appeared — but kept largely to himself in the clubhouse, understanding that he was there to absorb information but that a return to the minors was inevitable for a player who had only spent part of a season playing as high as Double-A. This year is different.
Lavarnway, who is being recognized on Thursday as the team’s Minor League Player of the Year by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has not talked with members of the organization about whether he can force his way onto the big league roster with a strong spring training showing. He is aware of the likelihood that the team will open the year with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach as its two catchers.
Regardless, the 24-year-old masher — who hit .290 with a .376 OBP, .563 slugging mark, .939 OPS and 32 homers for Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket while hitting .231 with a .718 OPS and two homers in 43 plate appearances in the majors — is going to camp (heading to Fort Myers on Feb. 1, more than two weeks before the official reporting date for pitchers and catchers, so that he can take part in “Camp Tuck,” a rigorous instruction program with Sox bullpen and catching coach Gary Tuck) intent on both making a strong impression that can land him a big league job at some point in 2012 and on ensuring that he gets the work done with pitchers to be able to work well with them if and when he does get that call.
“This year, I’m in a little bit of a different situation than I was in last year,” said Lavarnway. “Last year, I went into spring training looking to get into my Double-A season. This year, I’m looking to get ready to compete and play at the major league level, whether it’s at the beginning of the year or some point later. … Last year, I just tried to get my reps in. This year, I’m going to try to start to form a relationship with [pitchers].”
Lavarnway is looking to build upon a 2011 season in which he made significant strides both offensively and defensively, but that ended in head-spinning fashion. In the final two games of the season, his name was inked into the Sox lineup as a catcher. In the penultimate game of the season, he carried the Sox to an 8-7 win, crushing two homers. The next night, he went 0-for-5 while stranding nine baserunners as the Sox suffered their season-ending 4-3 defeat.
While he visited two extremes in his offensive performance, however, Lavarnway proved defensively solid in both games, managing the pace of the games while also shutting down the Orioles running game and showing good technique behind the dish. Once the sting of the Sox’ defeat subsided, Lavarnway was able to view his big league experience as one upon which he could build.
“Overall, I was pleased with my performance. You guys have been questioning my skills for a while back there. I know two games doesn’t prove anything, necessarily, but it’s a start,” said Lavarnway. “I was less concerned with not getting any hits and more pleased with the way I caught that last game. I went to sleep the night before that thinking about how I had not caught [starter Jon Lester] before, what kind of game I was going to call with him. I was pleased with the way we worked together. I took away that I caught a pretty good game and that I couldn’t believe that we lost.
“It was tough to look at a lot of positives at first, but the farther I got away from it, I looked at a lot of positives. Once I swallowed the fact that we hadn’t made the playoffs, I started getting ready for next year and feel like we have that sense of unfinished business and something to prove in us, and I think we’re all going into the season pretty hungry.”
Hunger in a more literal sense has also been an issue for Lavarnway this offseason. He went to play winter ball in Venezuela at the end of the year, only to have his winter ball season cut short when he contracted a stomach bug that cost him 20 pounds in eight days. He went to Denver to recover, then went to his native Southern California, in the process regaining his lost weight. More recently, however, he shed it again at Athletes’ Performance in Arizona.
“I gained [the weight] all back, unfortunately, then had to lose it the hard way,” he mused.
His work this winter has been purposeful, given what the promising 24-year-old hitter has in front of him this spring.
“I would like to think that I’m competing for a [big league] job,” said Lavarnway. “I had no disillusions I was going to be handed a spot before they signed Shoppach. I’m going in trying to earn everything I can get.”
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