FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On many days, long after everybody else has left the practice fields, infield instructor Brian Butterfield is still hammering grounders in the direction of Ryan Lavarnway at first base.
On and on they go, with Butterfield maintaining a non-stop dialogue of encouragement and instruction.
It’s apparently paying off.
Lavarnway is still primarily a catcher, but with that spot crowded with A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross at the major-league level and prospects Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart rising in the minors, it doesn’t hurt to have versatility.
Manager John Farrell said Wednesday that Lavarnway’s work at first base has been “very intriguing.”
“At this point, we would have no hesitation to put him at first base,” Farrell said. “That’s the kind of work he’s done there and how quickly he’s caught on. It’s not just in terms of fielding a ground ball. It’s the nuances of the position. He’s a smart guy and has got great aptitude.”
Mike Napoli’s work with Butterfield last spring certainly paid off. Napoli improved his fielding percentage 10 points (from .984 in 2012 in Texas to .994 last year) and was first in the American League in total zone total fielding runs (the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made).
“[Brian’s] an incredible teacher,” Farrell said. “He’s tireless. He’s very specific and guys trust in him. I think what’s happened with Nap’s transition to first base, when guys see the ability to adapt to another position, other players see that. And they see that it’s not only accepted, but I think they become a little bit more open-minded because they’re going to get a chance to work with just a great instructor. And have a lot of confidence they will be proficient to play the position.”
* Pierzynski and Ross will be given the day off in Thursday’s doubleheader against Northeastern and Boston College, with Lavarnway and Butler going in the opener and Vazquez and Swihart in the second game.
“It’s just getting the four other catchers to split a game together because from Friday on we’ll look to go every other day between Ross and A.J. in a starting role, with other guys filling in behind,” Farrell said.
Farrell said he thought getting two to three starts with every starting pitcher would give Pierzynski enough preparation to start the season.
* Daniel Nava (neck) will take batting practice Thursday and “depending on how he comes out of that” could be ready to play in weekend games.
* Farrell said the team is taking a careful approach in trying to cut down on Napoli’s strikeouts (a franchise single-season record 187 last year, plus 21 in the playoffs) while maintaining what makes him great.
“One thing he’s stated is maybe addressing a little more of a two-strike approach,” Farrell said. “One thing we didn’t want to sacrifice is the things that are clearly his strong suit. You’re talking about a guy who’s seen the most pitches of anyone in the game. While there’s a concerted effort on his part to put the ball in play a little bit more in those two-strike situations, we don’t want him to take to get to the point where sacrificing his power starts to filter into that. And he’s well aware of that.
“The one thing he does already is he adjusts on the bat. Even for a power hitter, he will choke up. I think some of it is looking to just put the ball in play. Many times that’s going to be to the off field.”