After Ryan Lavarnway joined the Red Sox when rosters expanded in September of 2011, many fans were excited that the future of catching had arrived in Boston. The 23-year-old backstop would play in 17 games, collect 43 plate appearances, and hit .231/.302/.436 with a pair of homers -- both in game 161, temporarily keeping Boston's playoff hopes alive. The power wasn't entirely unexpected: Lavarnway led the Red Sox organization in homers in 2011, beating out even Jacoby Ellsbury. Despite this, he wouldn't find himself set to return to Boston for 2012.
That's because Lavarnway had never spent a full season catching in the minors, and defense was the area in which his game was considered problematic. Instead, he had spent much of his time as a DH -- even in his brief time with the Red Sox, he split time evenly between catching and filling in as designated hitter, and that was on a roster with David Ortiz on it. He played 116 games in 2011 between Double- and Triple-A, but caught just 62; 126 contests in 2010, but just 53 behind the plate.
The Red Sox decided that what was best for Lavarnway was to give him a season in the minors where he was the primary catcher, and not sharing duties with someone considered a lesser prospect. To this end, they signed Kelly Shoppach to a one-year deal for $1.35 million.
Shoppach didn't have the departed Jason Varitek's defensive chops, but, according to research done around the same time, not many did. Plus, his job wasn't to be Varitek; he was signed to give Lavarnway the time he needed to catch consistently in the minors, as a final step before he was promoted to the majors for real. To Boston's credit, that seems to have worked, as Lavarnway was voted the top defensive catcher in the International League by managers and coaches. A caveat is needed for that: this is essentially a prospect Gold Glove award given it's voted on by those who don't constantly see every player or play, but the fact Lavarnway was recognized speaks to likely improvement, if nothing else.
Shoppach hit much better than expected, posting a 109 OPS+ and amassing 19 extra-base hits in 158 plate appearances. He also struck out nearly 40 percent of the time, though, and was mostly productive due to a small-sample .411 batting average on balls in play. He's a useful piece when employed correctly -- the Red Sox did just that, using Shoppach against lefties more than righties -- but he's not a permanent solution. That's why he was shipped off to the Mets for a player to be named later, potentially to get an extended tryout for their 2013 backup catching job; more importantly for Boston, his departure opened up a specific role for Ryan Lavarnway with the Red Sox.
Lavarnway had already been in the majors, in part due to David Ortiz's extended absence from an Achilles injury. The Red Sox had three backstops on the roster, and Lavarnway had started all but one of his games prior to Tuesday's at DH. Having him around as a DH is fine, but he was sent to the minors to figure out how to catch often, and had been taken away from that. With Shoppach gone, he can get back on track. He won't be the starter with Jarrod Saltalamacchia around, but he can still split duties with him, while getting the chance to learn from Salty, catcher's coach Gary Tuck, and a major-league pitching staff. That's all going to be invaluable to his career, especially with Saltalamacchia a free agent following the 2013 season.
Lavarnway has loads of offensive potential, but there are also plenty of items that need to be worked on at the plate. He has patience, but will need to learn when to be aggressive in order to keep from being exploited by the world's most-advanced hurlers. He has power, but will need to learn to force these pitchers to throw it in his wheelhouse by laying off of breaking stuff off of the plate. As his .295/.376/.439 line in Pawtucket this year reminds us, he's not a completely finished product yet.
The finish can start to be put on this year, though, with Lavarnway getting time to acclimate himself to the majors in the season's final eight weeks. Things haven't started out great -- he owns a 601 OPS through his first 24 major-league games -- but that's what he's here to change.