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Sunday Baseball Notes

Lavarnway is hoping to hit it big in 2012

By Nick Cafardo
January 15, 2012
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Since New Year’s Day, Ryan Lavarnway has been going through quickness and agility drills at Athletes’ Performance in Phoenix.

“Just trying to get bigger, stronger, faster,’’ Lavarnway said. “Learning a lot about nutrition.’’

But on Feb. 1 - some 18 days before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to the Red Sox’ new JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. he will start Camp Tuck, in which catching instructor Gary Tuck will put him through a memorable workout.

The rookie catcher will be all ears as he heads into his first significant major league camp under the tutelage of Tuck. Lavarnway seems to control his destiny. It appears to be up to him whether he sticks as the second catcher or leaves the Sox brass feeling he needs more seasoning at Pawtucket.

The Sox brought in Kelly Shoppach - once considered a top catching prospect in the Boston organization - as competition for Lavarnway.

Shoppach, who was traded to Cleveland in January 2006 as part of the Coco Crisp deal, morphed into a backup catcher, not the No. 1 guy most thought he would become, but Indians pitchers and then Rays pitchers enjoyed throwing to him.

Shoppach hit 21 homers and knocked in 55 runs for the 2008 Indians but never came close to that output again. He has spent the last two seasons with Tampa Bay, unable to break the Mendoza Line.

Now it is Lavarnway with a chance to live up to his lofty billing, which he created with a powerful minor league season in 2011 in which he hit 32 homers, knocked in 93 runs, and had an OPS of .939 between Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket.

In 17 games with Boston, Lavarnway hit .231 with 2 homers and 8 RBIs. Both homers came in Game 161 at Baltimore, when he knocked in four runs and did a nice job behind the plate, throwing out Adam Jones trying to steal third. But in that fateful 162d game that ended Boston’s season, Lavarnway went 0 for 5.

However, he did something in that game that stuck with his teammates and made them realize that he has some leadership and spunk in him. When Jon Lester was struggling, Dustin Pedroia called time out and started trotting toward the mound to offer Lester some encouragement. Lavarnway popped up from his squat, and as he ran out to the mound, he shouted out to Pedroia something to the effect of, “Hey little man, I’ve got this one.’’

It was an impressive act for a rookie in such a tough spot, late in the season in a do-or-die situation.

While some scouts feel Lavarnway is a little raw behind the plate, others think he has made great strides.

“I know that I work really hard on my catching, and it’s very important to me,’’ said Lavarnway. “I take it very seriously.

“When I was up with the Red Sox, I worked with Gary Tuck quite a bit and tried to soak everything in. I’m looking forward to working with him before camp and just try to keep improving.’’

He doesn’t believe he is as far behind defensively as others seem to think.

“Sometimes the perception hasn’t caught up to the reality,’’ Lavarnway said. “I know people are saying I’m this or that, but I know based on the work I’ve done that I’m improving, and all I’m saying is maybe that improvement hasn’t reached the evaluations of people who are saying those things.

“What matters is the Red Sox organization feels I’m making progress. They’re the ones I need to show. I also need to show my teammates and the pitchers that I’m someone they can trust behind the plate and that they feel comfortable.

“In the 32 days I spent in the majors, Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] and Tek [Jason Varitek] were really good about showing me things they know and the way to go about things.

“Like I said, I just try to soak everything in and try to apply it.’’

Obviously, learning to catch in the majors is tough. You’re the quarterback. You have the chance to make a great impact on the pitching staff and to energize the team.

“I spent 17 years in the big leagues, and it took me four years of playing to figure out what I was doing,’’ said former catcher Buck Martinez, who is now a Blue Jays broadcaster. “I was called up to the majors from A ball and I could only physically catch two pitchers on the staff.

“Learning to catch in the majors on a daily basis is one of the toughest things to do. You’re now catching 12 major league pitchers who throw harder, who have better stuff. It’s that much tougher to block balls.

“The advantage Ryan will have is that he has the best catching instructor there is in Gary Tuck. He teaches mechanics like nobody else.

“I remember when he was with the Yankees, he showed me how they kept track of every blocked ball and throw Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada made so they could review their performance and try to improve.’’

The advent of good young catchers bears that out.

Buster Posey’s emergence in 2010 helped vault the Giants to the World Series title. Posey is an extraordinary talent both offensively and defensively, and he made believers out of his staff. Without him, the Giants seemed lost in 2011.

The Indians have a strong young catcher in Carlos Santana. The Tigers got an outstanding season out of Alex Avila, who made the All-Star team. The Blue Jays have a budding star in J.P. Arencibia. And the Orioles have grown with Matt Wieters.

Lavarnway, a Yale graduate, has surprised many with his quick rise. He could be the next great prospect, which is exciting for the Sox. The occasional infusion of outstanding talent from the farm system can often energize a franchise. And the Sox need it more than any team after last September’s historic collapse.

It isn’t just the Sox who believe in Lavarnway. Scouts from rival organizations think he has big-time power. He has a smooth, uncomplicated stroke based on a timing mechanism, much like that of Toronto slugger Jose Bautista.

When Lavarnway connects, he usually hits the ball a long way. He also has a good eye. Last year, he threw out 37 percent of base stealers, which these days is a high percentage.

At present, there are no plans for Lavarnway to be used at a different position. The Red Sox feel he can be their Mike Napoli, a power-hitting catcher who will grow into the position.

And if he has to go back to Pawtucket?

“My goal is to play in the big leagues,’’ he said. “If the Red Sox feel I need to go back and spend more time there, that’s what I’ll do. They know better than I about players and development. I’m just trying my best to get there. That’s where I want to be.’’

Apropos of nothing

Etc.

1. OK, here’s what I think of the Yankees’ signing of Hiroki Kuroda and their trade for Seattle’s Michael Pineda: terrific for them, bad for the Red Sox. We lauded Ben Cherington for obtaining two 27-year-old end-of-the-bullpen relievers in Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey. Now we need to commend Brian Cashman. Pineda is 22 and throws almost 100 m.p.h. Does he always know where it’s going? No. He also ran out of gas in the second half last year after making the All-Star team, going 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA in his last 10 starts. But the Yankees added to their arsenal big-time after they couldn’t pry Felix Hernandez from the Mariners. Cashman did it in a low-cost way, and now has tremendous flexibility. He has eight potential starters (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Pineda, Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, Kuroda, and Dellin Betances), same as Tampa Bay. In Kuroda, the Yankees got a 200-inning third-starter type for one year at $10 million. This is precisely the guy the Sox needed. Now Cashman can be even more creative. Can he ship Burnett and some of his money somewhere? Can he use Hughes or Pineda as a chip in another deal, perhaps for Matt Garza?

2. You can hear the admiration in his voice every time Dan Duquette talks about Johnny Damon. “He’s a real pro, a good player who has helped a lot of teams win,’’ said the Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations. Duquette won’t come out and say he’s interested in signing Damon, but now that the Rays have taken his guy (Luke Scott), Damon is a nice option for the Orioles, who could use someone in a leadership role.

3. Albert Pujols replaced Mark Trumbo as the Angels first baseman. Coincidentally, they share a birthday - tomorrow, when Pujols turns 32 and Trumbo 26.

4. Don’t let Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure’s size or demeanor fool you, says Buck Martinez. “Bob is a former teammate, and I can tell you, he’s one tough guy,’’ Martinez said. “He’s a very good pitching coach and he has his own way of getting things done and getting his pitchers motivated to get things done. He had Aaron Cook in Colorado and he really nurtured Zack Greinke in Kansas City, especially in that Cy Young year.’’

5. There were 50 scouts from 20 teams present for Joel Zumaya’s workout in December. Some teams will not offer him a guaranteed deal, but at least three are pushing hard for him. The Red Sox are very interested. There was concern that the oft-injured reliever - who once threw more than 100 miles per hour - couldn’t pass a physical, but evidently teams that have accessed his records are willing to take the risk after he threw in the mid-90s. The Padres are very excited about him.

6. While you never say never on a long-term deal for Jacoby Ellsbury, it appears the Sox will attempt to settle on a one-year fix to avoid arbitration by Tuesday’s deadline. Ellsbury will likely get a huge increase on his $2.4 million paycheck after his tremendous season. Matt Swartz, who figures arbitration raises on mlbtraderumors.com, projects Ellsbury to jump to about $7.9 million. Estimates on other Red Sox players: Andrew Bailey, $3.5 million; Alfredo Aceves, $1.7 million; and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Daniel Bard, $1.6 million.

7. Did Larry Lucchino ever get that contract extension?

8. Wouldn’t Pedro Martinez be a great spring training instructor for the Red Sox?

9. If Bruce Hurst weren’t busy owning and operating hardware stores, he’d be a major league pitching coach right now.

10. Free agent righthander Vicente Padilla is rumored to be on Boston’s radar, but while he has great stuff, he sure doesn’t seem like the Red Sox’ cup of tea.

11. One scout said pitchers ate up Anthony Rizzo on the inner half of the plate when he played for the Padres.

12. Will Brian Roberts ever stay healthy?

13. The Jason Varitek situation is awkward. It’s hard for him to accept just an invitation to spring training. If he doesn’t make it, the team is put in the tough position of having to release a mainstay. Varitek could probably hook on elsewhere, but like his Yankee counterpart, Jorge Posada, retirement might be the better way to go. But that’s Varitek’s call.

Updates on nine

1. Roy Oswalt, RHP, free agent - The Rangers may be the frontrunners for him, but have the Yankee moves put the squeeze on the Red Sox to go a little extra to get the veteran righthander? It’ll be interesting to see whether the Sox stick to their approach of low-cost guys. In a perfect world, Oswalt would go to St. Louis or stay in Philadelphia (there are people in that organization who would love to see him back). The Yankees were concerned about his back, as are other teams, and some have been asking whether Oswalt still has the fire. If Kuroda went for $10 million for one year, Oswalt could be had for about $9 million for one year, according to a National League GM.

2. Prince Fielder, 1B, free agent - Man, it has been slow, but there is a team out there that will get itself a very good centerpiece hitter. The Marlins, Nationals, and Rangers remain possibilities. Fielder met with the Rangers Friday. The Orioles still insist they don’t have the funds to make it happen. Ditto the Mariners. Most believe the Nationals make the most sense, but they also need more pitching and a center fielder. There has been talk about Fielder returning to Milwaukee for a year and then hitting free agency again.

3. Edwin Jackson, RHP, free agent - Another Scott Boras client trying to find the perfect deal and perfect spot. He is 28, durable, and can be electric, but something about him keeps teams from committing five years at $75 million-$80 million (though the price may have come down). “For that kind of money, you need more consistency out of him,’’ said a National League talent scout. “I guess there’s a lack of trust in that consistency. He’s a great athlete, but he doesn’t have a great feel for pitching. To me, he’s still a complementary piece. He can overpower hitters, but the lack of continuity in his outings is what makes teams hesitate.’’

4. Matt Garza, RHP, Cubs - This is Theo Epstein’s big chip, so when he says he’s not letting him go if he doesn’t get his price, well, he means it. He doesn’t have to let him go in the offseason market, because he knows there will be a midseason market. The Red Sox, Yankees, and Tigers could all get this deal done. The Sox still won’t let go of their A list guys, the Tigers won’t part with Jacob Turner, and who knows now about the Yankees after their two big moves Friday? The Tigers have been relatively quiet this offseason, but they have to feel some pressure from the Indians, who have done some interesting things to bolster their team.

5. Carlos Lee, 1B/OF, Astros - The Rays briefly discussed a deal for Lee, but the money (he earns $18.5 million this year) was too much to take on, even if Houston took a big hunk of it. An Astros source said there have been a few other inquiries about Lee.

6. Yu Darvish, RHP - Rangers president Nolan Ryan said he is optimistic about signing Darvish by Wednesday’s deadline. The Rangers have used the Daisuke Matsuzaka six-year, $52 million deal as a baseline for an offer, and while the final salary will likely be higher, the Rangers won’t go crazy. They know they can get their $52.1 million posting fee and use it for someone like Fielder and/or Oswalt.

7. Ryan Spilborghs, OF, free agent - Another name to keep in mind for the Red Sox. He is 32, plays a good outfield, and the Sox have always liked him. But he had a horrible year last season (.210). He, Cody Ross, and Ryan Ludwick remain possibilities for Boston’s outfield.

8. Chad Qualls, RHP, free agent - He has been on Boston’s radar all offseason, perhaps to replace veteran Dan Wheeler in the bullpen. Qualls appeared in 77 games for the Padres last season, going 6-8 with a 3.51 ERA and a 1.251 WHIP. He is 32 and could be a decent one-year signing.

9. Koby Clemens, 1B/3B/OF, free agent - Roger’s 25-year-old son is a six-year minor league free agent and is not going back to his hometown Astros. He hit .234 with 16 homers and 55 RBIs for Oklahoma City in the Pacific Coast League last season. He has played all over the field - catcher, third base, corner outfield, and first base - but seems best-suited for first base.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck files: “Jorge Posada finishes his 208-game career against the Red Sox with a .266 average, 31 homers, and 115 RBIs. Interestingly, he finishes a 208-game interleague career with a .266 average, 32 homers, and 114 RBIs.’’ Also, “Comparing mediocrity: Aaron Cook has a 1.468 lifetime WHIP and 4.53 ERA, Edwin Jackson has a 1.476 lifetime WHIP and 4.46 ERA, while Zach Duke has a 1.490 lifetime WHIP and 4.56 ERA.’’ And, “Bill Fischer, the former pitching coach of the Reds, Red Sox, and Rays, will work his 65th year in professional baseball in 2012 as the Royals’ senior pitching adviser.’’ . . . Wish Dave Stapleton a happy 58th birthday if you see him tomorrow.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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