When bullpen coach Gary Tuck raved this spring that the Red Sox have the best collection of catching he has seen in his 35 years, he wasn’t just referring to the catchers that were in big-league camp. He also was referring to Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz, two receivers with diverse skill sets who are climbing the organizational ladder together after being selected in back-to-back rounds in the 2008 draft.
Having good catching in the system is timely, inasmuch as both Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek, who will comprise the team’s big-league catching corps this season, are coming to the end of their contracts in 2010.
Lavarnway, 22, is an offensive-minded backstop with a ton of power potential. He was drafted in the sixth round out of Yale after hitting 33 home runs over a 120-game college career. Having only converted from the outfield to catching in 2007, he is still learning the trade defensively. Federowicz, on the other hand, was selected in the seventh round out of North Carolina more for his defensive tools than for his bat. At 22, just two days older than Lavarnway, Federowicz is already considered close to major league-ready behind the plate.
Since being drafted together in 2008, the two have become friends despite competing for time behind the dish over the last two seasons.
"I think Tim's great,” Lavarnay said. “He's a great guy, a good clubhouse guy. ...
"I can learn a lot from him in terms of catching because he does a lot of things very well back there. I think that I'm better for him being around. I don't think there's a better catcher than him in the minor leagues, and having him around definitely raises the standards for me."
In addition to the impressions made on Lavarnway, Federowicz has also impressed the Red Sox front office with his defensive skills.
"Fed is a little quicker behind the plate with a very good release, ability to run the pitching staff, and call games,” Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. "With Fed, we're just working on the finer points of his blocking and receiving skills."
At 21, Federowicz also demonstrated some offensive proficiency in 2009, hitting .345 with a .955 OPS and 10 home runs in 55 games with low-A Greenville. Promoted to high-A Salem in late June, he initially struggled, hitting just .194 in his first 26 games, but adjusted to the Carolina League enough to hit .319 in the season’s final 25 contests. Ultimately, while he led the Red Sox system with a combined .305 average for the season (players with 250 or more at-bats), he’ll need to focus on staying consistent at the plate.
This spring, Federowicz is focusing on his leadership skills and improving his overall game.
“As a catcher, I need to be the captain on the field, so one of the things I really want to work on -- and it actually may be one of my weaknesses -- is being more vocal throughout the games,” he said. “I also need to continue to work on being a guy that can handle a full season of baseball, someone who can be relied on every day.”
Federowicz, called “FedEx” by his teammates, is also concentrating on forging relationships with his batterymates.
“You have to kind of get into their heads, find out what kind of pitcher they are, and what they want to accomplish each outing,” he explained. “I try and figure out what they want to throw, so we’ll talk between innings. The biggest thing is to be able to build that relationship, to know what they want to get out of their outings, and to establish what I want to get out of them.”
While discussing his own developmental needs, Federowicz also spoke highly of Lavarnway’s work ethic.
“Ryan’s a good player, and he’s been progressing as a catcher. He really focuses on fixing everything that he needs to fix and wants to develop as a player. I think that’s going to help him out in the future.”
One aspect of Lavarnway’s game that has not needed a lot of fixing is his offense. The catcher displayed his slugging prowess with Greenville in 2009, hitting .285 with a .907 OPS and 21 home runs over 106 games, leading the Red Sox system in both OPS and home runs. But while Lavarnway dominated South Atlantic League pitching in 2009, he is still a work-in-progress defensively, and the hope is that his mitt catches up to his bat in the next couple of years.
"Ryan probably had the best overall offensive year of all of our catchers," said Hazen, "We're working with Ryan on receiving technique and overall throwing mechanics. Ryan's ability to stay behind the plate will be very important for his career."
The refinement of Lavarnway’s catching skills will indeed be crucial, as it is generally believed that he lacks the range to play outfield in the majors and has minimal experience at other positions. Lavarnway recognizes that he needs to develop his defensive game.
"That was definitely my biggest weakness last year and coming into this season,” he admitted. “Going into the offseason, that was the No. 1 thing that I wanted to focus on and that I spent the most time thinking about, and that's what I've spent the most time on in practice and in spring training."
The 22-year-old has been working closely with Boston's catching instructors this spring, including minor league catching coordinator Chad Epperson. In particular, Lavarnway described working on improving his initial catching position, which would help in receiving pitches, getting in position to throw, and being able to move to block more pitches in the dirt.
"I'm happy with the progress that I'm making and continue to make," he said. "I watched a lot of video of Joe Mauer and Jason Varitek. I try to emulate the things that I think they do well. I think that's the style I'm trying to get."
Heading into the 2010 season, Federowicz and Lavarnway once again will break camp as teammates sharing the catching and designated hitter duties, this time in Salem. If Federowicz can continue to refine the intricacies of his defensive game and demonstrate consistency at the plate, he could be in line for a mid-season promotion to Double-A Portland. If that is the case, look for him to see action in major league camp next spring training with the hopes of positioning himself to be a major league option by 2012. As for Lavarnway, the former Ivy Leaguer knows that he will need to prove himself defensively at every level to stick behind the plate. If he can establish himself as a major-league caliber defensive catcher, the Sox could have another backstop in the mold of Victor Martinez on their hands.
Ultimately, while both players have refinements to make over the next few years, the Red Sox have two more catchers with the potential to be major league impact players on their hands. There is much to be said for finding that type of talent in the sixth and seventh rounds, yet another success story for Boston's amateur scouting department. Now the responsibility lies with the organization’s player development staff to work with Federowicz and Lavarnway on improving their identified areas of need. The work in those developmental areas will go a long way in determining whether Federowicz and Lavarnway can reach that potential, and 2010 will certainly be an interesting year to follow their respective development paths.