April 24, 2011

On Baseball: Catching tandem working its way up Red Sox system

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — In 2008, when the Boston Red Sox used Kevin Cash to back up Jason Varitek, the Sox had George Kottaras and Dusty Brown in Triple-A, Mark Wagner in Portland, and an emerging prospect name Luis Exposito in Class A.

click image to enlarge

Tim Federowicz

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Ryan Lavarnway

Still, Boston used its sixth and seventh picks in the 2008 draft on catchers.

Since then, Tim Federowicz and Ryan Lavarnway have shadowed each other, starting every season on the same team. Both are 23, with Federowicz two days older.

Currently, the two rotate roles in Portland. When one catches, the other is the designated hitter. The Red Sox want their prospects to get plenty of at-bats.

Given the current catching situation in Boston, it is not a stretch to think that both could be playing in Fenway Park someday.

Both were invited to the Red Sox rookie camp in January and then the major league spring training camp in February.

But, both are supposedly one-dimensional players -- Federowicz the defensive whiz who could not hit, and Lavarnway the offensive star who labored behind the plate.

"I understand the stereotype, but it's a little unfair," said Mike Hazen, director of player development for Boston.

"Lavarnway has made as much improvement as anyone in the system in terms of what he's doing behind the plate. And we think Fed can hit, too."

Of the two, who is ahead? They seem to take turns in that category.

In 2009, Federowicz got a midseason promotion to advanced Class A Salem, while Lavarnway stayed in Greenville.

Last year, Federowicz spent all season in Salem, batting .253, while Lavarnway moved up to Portland in mid-July. Lavarnway batted .287, totaling 22 home runs.

"He deserved to get called up," said Federowicz, who batted .253 with four home runs in Salem. "I was in a rut at the beginning of the (2010) season. I was a little disappointed I was in A-ball again. From my mindset, I felt like I didn't belong there when, in reality, I did. My numbers showed that."

Federowicz said he adjusted his attitude and that led to improvement at the end of last year. He has carried that over into 2011.

Through Friday, Federowicz was batting .333 (16 for 48) with three doubles and two home runs.

"This is the best I've felt my whole career, Federowicz said. "I've been able to stay on the ball a lot longer -- seeing pitches, going deep in counts. Making sure the pitcher throws me a pitch I want to hit, and not swing at the balls I don't want to hit."

Sea Dogs Manager Kevin Boles was in Salem last year, and Greenville the year before that. He knows both players.

"Tim Federowicz does profile as a catch-and-throw candidate for the major leagues," Boles said. "Very quick feet, strong release, good arm strength.

"But he has offensive potential (too). I think people are selling the bat short."

Federowicz's defensive abilities are considered the best in the Red Sox farm system. And now that he is hitting, his name comes up in media speculation about the catching situation in Boston.

New No. 1 catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is struggling on defense, while batting .205 through Friday. And Varitek, 39, is batting only .043.

In Pawtucket, newly acquired Michael McKenry is considered an emergency fill-in, while Exposito's defense is not ready. And when McKenry was acquired, Wagner was taken off the 40-man roster, showing the confidence Boston has in him.

Lavarnway's forte had always been his offense, with a career .862 OPS. His catching looked suspect as recently as two years ago.

"His season in Greenville, he wasn't very athletic," Boles said. "Had a hard time just catching the ball.

"He has worked so hard and has put himself in a position now -- he's a quality receiver, real quick feet, good exchanges. Defensively, he has turned himself into a guy who has major league potential."

Lavarnway threw out 33 percent of base stealers against him last year (the same as Federowicz). This year, Lavarnway's percentage is at 44 percent (4 of 9).

"I'm just trying to polish off a little bit of the rough edges," Lavarnway said. "I feel like I'm almost there. Just making it more consistent, and proving I'll be reliable for a whole season."

At the plate, Lavarnway began slowly (1 for 13) and is just starting to rebound (at .220 through Friday).

Assuming Lavarnway's bat comes around, the Red Sox will have two prime catching prospects in Portland. They seem comfortable being on the same team.

"Ever since the draft we've worked together well," Lavarnway said. "We bounce ideas off each other."

They also push each other. And if their trend continues, one player will reach the next level, followed shortly by the other maybe all the way to Boston?

"We're not in competition with each other," Federowicz said. "If both of us perform the way we're supposed to, things will work out.

"We'll both be in the big leagues, whether with the Red Sox or somebody else."

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at:

kthomas@pressherald.com

 

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