Name: Ryan Lavarnway
Organization: Red Sox
Notable 2011 Stats: .284/.360/.510 with 5 2B, 0 3B, 14 HR, 47/25 K/BB, and 0-for-0 SB in 55 games with Portland (AA);
.295/.390/.612 with 18 2B, 0 3B, 18 HR, 60/32 K/BB, and 1-for-2 SB in 61 games with Pawtucket (AAA);
.290/.376/.563 with 23 2B, 0 3B, 32 HR, 107/57 K/BB, and 1-for-2 SB in 116 games total in minors;
.231/.302/.436 with 2 2B, 0 3B, 2 HR, 10/4 K/BB, and 0-for-0 SB in 17 games with Red Sox
Why He’s This High: Lavarnway’s hit well for his entire minor league career, but he took things to a new level in 2011, bashing 32 homers in just 116 minor league games despite playing in some pretty tough environments. His bat is so good that he’d be a serious prospect at any position, but the fact that he’s a catcher makes him even more intriguing.
Lavarnway is a solid all-around offensive player. Obviously, he’ll hit the ball over the fence, but he also takes a solid amount of walks, and while he does strike out a fair amount, he makes enough hard contact that his batting averages have been consistently in the .280-.290 range his whole career.
Since he completely tore Triple-A pitchers up this year, Lavarnway’s bat looks more than ready to contribute in the Red Sox lineup in 2012. He didn’t look overmatched in some scattered plate appearances in August and September.
Defensively, Lavarnway erased 37% of basestealers in the minors this year, and he has a 32% rate for his minor league career, a good omen for his ability to control the running game in the big leagues.
Why He’s This Low: The biggest scouting knock against Lavarnway is a common one for big catchers–he doesn’t move well behind the plate. He spent almost as much time at DH as he spent behind the plate in the minors (53 games at DH, 62 at catcher), and he allowed seven passed balls in that half-season of time. Scouts once doubted if he’d be able to catch in the majors at all, and while he’s put those concerns to rest, he may be more of a Mike Napoli type than a bigtime defensive catcher.
Given his 22.7% strikeout rate in Triple-A, Lavarnway will need to continue to take a lot of walks and make a lot of hard contact if he’s going to be good for solid batting averages in the big leagues; he’ll need to prove he can do that if he’s going to maintain high-.200s averages and thus be a bigtime offensive stud.
Conclusions: Mike Napoli is a great comparison for Lavarnway. That seems like high praise here following the 2011 season, where Napoli posted 5.6 WAR, but we should remember that Napoli never posted more than 3.0 WAR in five previous seasons (though part of that was due to Mike Scioscia’s refusal to play him). If Lavarnway’s deficiencies (catcher defense and contact) get the better of him, he’s probably on that same decent-starter level; if he transcends those weaknesses, perhaps he can be closer to the 2011 version of Napoli. However, I’d take Lavarnway easily over, say, the more hyped Yonder Alonso of the Reds (who ranks 97th on this list)–he’s younger, has a better offensive track record, and plays a far more challenging defensive position (even if his defense at that position isn’t as good as Alonso’s). Lavarnway should be one of the premier offensive catchers in baseball for many years.
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