Ryan Lavarnway has been attempting to break into the majors as a catcher since 2011, but it hasn't quite worked out for him, for a variety of reasons. Now, with catching prospects like Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez in the upper minors, Lavarnway might not even see time behind the plate anymore, and could move to first base, according to Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington.
Cherington stated (via the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo) that Lavarnway would don a first baseman's mitt during spring training, in large part due to the presence of A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross on the big-league roster, as well as Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez at Triple-A Pawtucket and Blake Swihart both at spring training and at Double-A Portland. Lavarnway is stuck in the middle, and his defense has not improved enough to justify taking time away from the likes of Butler or Vazquez, leaving him with the option of learning another position.
The move also serves other purposes. Remember when Lars Anderson had no future at first base in Boston anymore, so he moved to left field in order to make himself more useful and versatile? It ended up improving his trade value and reigniting interest in the forgotten prospect, and while, it hasn't resulted in a major-league career, it at least created new opportunities where there were previously none to be found. Lavarnway to first base could do the same, as the league doesn't believe in him behind the plate -- it it did, he likely would have been traded by now. Moving to a position he might handle much better defensively could help him out.
Of course, first base also features much more offense than catcher, meaning Lavarnway is going to need to recapture some of his previous form in order to make a switch work in his and the Sox' favor. Lavarnway has batted just .208/.258/.327 in 291 major-league plate appearances, and has slugged just .439 and .350 at Triple-A Pawtucket the last two seasons following his explosive 2011 debut at the level.
Cafardo mentions that the Red Sox are "wondering where Lavarnway's power has gone," but it's worth pointing out that, even when Lavarnway mania was at its peak, there were those who thought he would struggle in the majors. During spring training in 2012, Baseball Prospectus prospect analyst Jason Parks told Over the Monster about his Lavarnway concerns:
I'm not sure about the bat; legit pop, but can he make enough contact for it to matter? Once the book gets written on his weaknesses at the plate, major league pitching will be able to manipulate those weaknesses for their own gain. I think you can attack Lavarnway up and in and dare him to generate enough bat speed to beat you. If he does, tip the cap and try another approach. But I'd dare him to hit quality velocity around the letters, especially if you can bust him inside. I don't think he has the bat speed to handle it.
Lavarnway hasindeed had issues with high-quality velocity as well as breaking stuff on the outside of the plate, and it's resulted in the poor numbers seen above. Even Triple-A pitching seems to have figured out where he can be bested, and it's resulted in consecutive years with underwhelming numbers that won't work at first base.
Before we bury Lavarnway completely, though, it's worth pointing out that getting out from behind the plate, both physically and mentally, could be of significant benefit to Lavarnway. Catching is a full-time job in a way other positions are not, and the preparation and time necessitated by those demands can often come at the expense of a backstop's offense. Let's not get any crazy ideas about Lavarnway becoming the next Josh Donaldson, but it's worth remembering that Donaldson was a pedestrian catching prospect with a decent bat who moved to third and became an MVP candidate within two years. If Lavarnway can move to first, focus on less demanding defensive requirements, and become an average big-league regular, that would be victory enough.
If nothing else, moving to first should give the Red Sox definitive answers about Lavarnway's future. He was at his best at the plate when he wasn't a full-time backstop, instead spending much of his time as a designated hitter. If Lavarnway can resurrect his offense by retiring the knee pads and chest protector, we'll have a better sense of what doomed him as he moved up the organizational ladder.