BOSTON -- This was part of the routine this winter for Ryan Lavarnway.
"My girlfriend checked to see if I got traded every morning," he said Thursday before being honored as the Red Sox minor league player of the year at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner.
Lavarnway’s girlfriend can relax. His path to the big leagues may be blocked temporarily by the team’s acquisition of veteran Kelly Shoppach, but within the Red Sox organization, people wonder why Lavarnway doesn’t get the same level of respect accorded another top catching prospect, Jesus Montero.
And while the Yankees elected not to hold onto Montero, dealing him to Seattle for highly regarded pitcher Michael Pineda, the message to teams asking about Lavarnway this winter was essentially, "Don’t bother."
The biggest reason, of course, is his bat. Lavarnway gave a memorable exhibition of his potential in the next-to-last game of the regular season when he homered twice and drove in four runs, a performance that prompted manager Terry Francona to start Lavarnway in the season finale ahead of banged-up veterans Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
This, after the 24-year-old Yalie drafted in the sixth round in 2008 pounded out 32 home runs and drove in 93 runs in a season split between Portland and Pawtucket. When the Red Sox look at Lavarnway, they see a big-bodied (he’s listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds) power hitter with 30-home run, middle-of-the-lineup potential for years to come.
With Varitek at the end of his remarkable 14-year run with the Red Sox, there was some thought that the Sox were prepared to open this season with Lavarnway as the backup to Saltalamacchia. That all changed, however, when new GM Ben Cherington signed Shoppach.
"I wasn’t surprised at all," Lavarnway said of the addition of Shoppach. "I was under no illusion that I was going to have a job after 32 games in the big leagues as a catcher. I knew that any more big-league time I had an opportunity for, I would have to earn.
"I’ve heard Kelly Shoppach is a great guy and I look forward to working with him."
The Sox sent Lavarnway to Venezuela this winter for additional seasoning, but that didn’t last long, as he caught a stomach bug, lost 20 pounds, and was quickly sent home. Since then, he has been working out at the Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona, along with Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and intends to be in Fort Myers by Feb. 1, when Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck will be there to put him through the same type of one-on-one tutorial he gave Saltalamacchia last winter.
One of these days, Lavarnway hopes, people will regard his catching skills as favorably as his bat. Lavarnway didn’t make the switch from outfield to catcher until his sophomore year at Yale, and a hand injury the following season limited him to mostly DH duties. The Sox knew that they were getting far from a finished product when they drafted him, but he has worked ferociously at improving behind the plate, and the progress is obvious, even to those who remain skeptical that he can play there every day in the big leagues.
Another season at Pawtucket may help greatly, but Lavarnway’s bat may force the issue sooner than later.
"I’m not a player development guy," he said, "but I’m very happy with where my catching is right now. I think guys throwing to me like who they’re throwing to. I think that’s the most important thing.
"There are a lot of things that are a lot easier for me to do now. I’m not working against myself anymore. I’ve got all the different parts of my body working together. Beyond that, I think the biggest thing is just waiting for the perception to change."
Lavarnway chafes at the label of not being a good defender.
"I feel like I had to be that much better to overcome the perception," he said. "Once that is changed, I feel my skills are right there.
"The skills are there. I’m building a resume. You want to write something nice about my catching, that would be appreciated."
He is sufficiently driven that he probably won’t be needing to ask for any favors.
And as for his girlfriend, Lavarnway doesn’t want you to get the wrong idea.
"It’s less hoping we get traded," he said, "and more liking to know where we’re going to be in a couple of months."