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Lavarnway next in receiving line

Sox impressed by catching prospect

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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The starting catcher for the Red Sox is a .248 career hitter who is with his third organization in five years and occasionally had trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher last season.

His backup turns 39 in April and has thrown out only 15 percent of base stealers in the last two seasons while hitting .214. Both spent much of last season on the disabled list.

Perhaps Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek will work out well. General manager Theo Epstein believes Saltalamacchia is ready to blossom and that Varitek will be effective off the bench.

If not? That would be where Ryan Lavarnway fits in.

A 23-year-old Californian by way of Yale, Lavarnway has hit 43 home runs and driven in 189 runs his last two seasons. More importantly, he has improved his defense enough to merit consideration should the Sox need a catcher at some point.

In an organization proud of its catching prospects, Lavarnway took the biggest step forward last year. He likely will start the coming season at Double A Portland with a good chance of moving to Triple A Pawtucket and perhaps beyond.

“He’s probably, if not the hardest, one of the hardest-working players we’ve had,’’ said Red Sox player development director Mike Hazen.

Lavarnway is one of 11 players in the team’s rookie development program, a two-week stretch of workouts, seminars, and community work designed to better prepare players for the majors. Typically, those players selected are considered a year or two away from making their debut.

As the Sox saw last year, injuries can change that timetable overnight and thrust young players into prominent roles. Five players, including outfielder Ryan Kalish and lefthander Felix Doubront, started last season in Portland and ended it in Boston.

“It stays in the back of your mind,’’ said Lavarnway. “I think that in order to stay sane and keep yourself playing well on an everyday basis, you need to focus on the task at hand. If that call comes, then you go help that team win.’’

That Lavarnway has come this far so quickly is unexpected. A sixth-round pick in 2008, his experience behind the plate consisted of one year of junior varsity ball in high school and a year and a half at Yale.

“My hitting is what got me noticed,’’ said Lavarnway, who led the nation with a .467 average as a sophomore in 2007.

That has continued in the minors. Lavarnway hit .288 with a .393 on-base percentage last season. He then played well in the Arizona Fall League.

Lavarnway has righthanded power — a commodity the Sox cherish — and an advanced approach at the plate.

“I’ve focused a lot on my defense,’’ he said. “Hitting has always come a little more natural to me. Defensively, I didn’t really know how far I had to come.

“Seeing these guys in the major leagues and these other catchers in the minors has helped me realize what I need to do and realize the weaknesses I hadn’t really noticed in my own game.’’

One adjustment the Sox made was having Lavarnway move his feet wider apart when he squatted behind the plate. That improved his balance and footwork. He threw out 33 percent of base stealers last season. But his throwing and release still need work.

“He’s come a long way,’’ said righthander Alex Wilson, a teammate at Single A Salem and Portland last season. “You could see it from the beginning of last season until the end.

“At the beginning of the year, I was shaking him off. But as he gets a feel for you and a feel for the game, he really does a good job. He’s gotten better blocking balls and receiving, and if you give him a chance to throw a guy out, he’ll do it.’’

For catching prospects, hitting is what sets them apart in the minors. But defense is what will get them to the majors.

“When he gets into big-league camp, when he catches some of those guys, that’s going to be a big shift for him,’’ Hazen said. “He’s a really smart kid, so he’ll be able to absorb those things.

“When you get up to that Triple A level, you need to be able to come up [to the majors], run the pitching staff, manage the game and make sure we leave with a win that day and that pitcher has been put in a position to succeed. That will be a separator for him.’’

A philosophy major a year away from graduating, Lavarnway is convinced baseball was the right career to pursue.

“I’ve been in love with baseball since the day I was born, I think. This is what I’ve always wanted to do,’’ he said. “If you follow your dreams and do what you love, you never work a day in your life.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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