Throughout his professional career, people have questioned whether Ryan Lavarnway can remain a catcher. One thing that has never been an issue, though, is what he brings at plate.
Initially an outfielder at Yale, Lavarnway converted to catcher in his sophomore season as he became one of the best offensive players in Ivy League history. He led the NCAA with a .467 average and .873 slugging percentage in 2007, then was named a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award during his junior season. Though he was drafted by the Red Sox that June, he still left school as the Ivy League's all-time home run leader with 33.
Lavarnway delivered power immediately in the Minors as he swatted 21 and 22 homers respectively in his first two full pro seasons. The sixth-round Draft pick then enjoyed his best campaign to date in 2011 -- he batted .290 with 32 home runs and a .939 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A -- en route to being named the Red Sox Minor League Offensive Co-Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. All the while, Lavarnway also improved his defense, making his future as a catcher more feasible.
The 24-year-old earned his first callup to the Majors in August and made his first start behind the plate in late September, and he did not disappoint. The native of California smacked two home runs and collected four RBIs in his backstop debut, becoming the third player in Major League history to hit multiple homers in his first game started at catcher.
This Spring, Lavarnway is attempting to earn a spot on the Boston's roster despite the presence of veteran catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach. The Red Sox's No. 4 prospect recently took time out of his schedule to chat with MiLB.com about that position battle, what his Major League debut was like and how he spent the offseason.
MiLB.com: You started out as an outfielder in college then switched to catcher your sophomore year. How did that come about?
Ryan Lavarnway: I actually was at a Hanukkah party over winter break and one of the other fathers that coached me in Little League asked when I would start catching. I said, "I don't know, but that's an idea." I told Coach [John Stuper] that I wanted a shot back there, he gave me a chance and thought I looked good. I always had soft hands, so I thought it was a perfect fit.
MiLB.com: You had a pretty crazy stretch at Triple-A last year when you hit eight homers in 10 games. Had you ever done anything like that before in your career?
Lavarnway: Not in pro ball. It felt like I was in college again, like my sophomore and junior year in college. I was seeing the ball well, my mechanics were working and I had a high level of focus. It was a combination of that and swinging at the right pitches.
MiLB.com: You'd think a catcher who hits 34 homers in one year would be regarded among the game's top 10 prospects. Do you think you're flying under the radar a little bit?
Lavarnway: I'm not concerned with that. I'm more concerned with getting ready for the big leagues and helping my team win. All those rankings don't end up meaning anything in the big picture.
MiLB.com: You played five games in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason. What made you go down there, and why did the stay end up being so short?
Lavarnway: The Red Sox requested that I go down there, they wanted me to get some innings behind the plate. I ended up getting really sick. I got some sort of bacteria down there. I don't know what it was that I ate, but I lost 20 pounds in a week and had to come back here and get healthy. I'm back to 100 percent now.
MiLB.com: You finally got the call to the Majors at the end of last year. What was it like when you found out?
Lavarnway: David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis had both gotten hurt the day before, and [the Red Sox] told me, "Hey, we don't know what the deal is with them, but you're going to fly to Kansas City, and if they can't play, you're in." So I went there, and it was kind of interesting not knowing if I would be in the lineup or shipped back to Triple-A. It was a great experience. My family and college buddies and girlfriend got to be there and share it with me.
MiLB.com: All those people saw your debut in Kansas City? Were they in the area?
Lavarnway: They came to Kansas City to meet me. My family was in LA, my sister was in Rhode Island in college and my girlfriend was with me in Rhode Island. A couple of my buddies were in DC and South Carolina.
MiLB.com: You hit your first two Major League homers on the penultimate day of the season, then we all know what happened on the last day. From an outside perspective, it seems like you might have had the best and worst days of your pro career back to back. What were those 48 hours like?
Lavarnway: It was definitely a whirlwind. We definitely didn't get too high after winning the second-to-last game of the year. When we lost, I think we were all just in shock. We couldn't believe it had happened. We're in Spring Training now and ready to move on, looking forward to this year.
MiLB.com: The Red Sox seem to have the catcher position locked up with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach. Knowing that, what's your attitude this spring?
Lavarnway: My attitude is that I'm just getting ready for the year. I'm preparing my body to handle the workload and honing my skills for the year. Wherever I end up playing -- hopefully by the end of the year I'm with the Boston Red Sox, even if I'm not going to start.
MiLB.com: Bobby Valentine is a respected baseball mind and definitely an outspoken guy. What are your impressions of him so far?
Lavarnway: He's very energetic, he loves the game and he's got a lot of new ideas. It's nice to have a guy that cares so much on our side.
MiLB.com: Being from California, who was your favorite team growing up?
Lavarnway: I was a Dodgers fan for sure. Mike Piazza was my favorite Dodger, but I always loved watching Ken Griffey Jr. and I grew up watching [Jason] Varitek.
MiLB.com: Besides baseball-related activities, what did you do to keep busy this past offseason?
Lavarnway: I really didn't do much. I spent a month down in Venezuela, spent a month getting healthy and then it was time to get strong and work on my skills again. My girlfriend and I are big foodies, so we like to eat delicious foods of all varieties. We spent one month down in Venezuela, one month in Denver, one month in LA and one month in Phoenix. Lots of good eats.
MiLB.com: If you weren't a pro ballplayer, what do you think you'd be doing?
Lavarnway: I thought it would be cool to be a structural engineer. My dad's an architect. I don't know how much I would enjoy designing buildings themselves, but making sure they're going to stand up, I think that would be cool.