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Ryan Lavarnway, Oakland A’s catcher depth

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Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout every winter, baseball teams stock up on some veteran minor league free agents to fill out Triple-A rosters and provide depth in key areas. Most of these names never amount to anything, and many of them bounce around from system to system as the years go on. But occasionally they break through, and they’ll be playing in spring training anyway, so it’s worth a quick peek to see who they are.

We’ve looked at several of these free agents already this winter, including a mix of players who have already logged some MLB time and others who are yet to make it at all:

Next up is catcher Ryan Lavarnway. The 29-year-old was once a notable Red Sox prospect, even making a couple Top 100 lists entering 2012. However, despite appearing in MLB every year from 2011-15, the right-handed hitter never managed to stick long-term, and he spent 2016 toiling in the minors. Here’s a closer look!

Ryan Lavarnway, C

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that minor league free agents are people too, with families and hobbies and quirks and, of course, pets.

Awww.

OK, moving on. Here’s the depth chart he is now part of:

MLB — Stephen Vogt (L), Josh Phegley (R)

Upper minors: Bruce Maxwell (L), Matt McBride (R), Ryan Lavarnway (R), Beau Taylor (L) (Taylor is suspended for beginning of season)

That makes Lavarnway one of three right-handers at the top of the chart, fighting with McBride for playing time at Triple-A (currently assuming Maxwell will be the primary starter for Nashville).

Background

Lavarnway was drafted by Boston in 2008, in the 6th round out of Yale. From 2009-11 he tore the cover off the ball, with HR power and enormous walk rates, all the way up through Triple-A. He made his MLB debut in ‘11, a few days after his 24th birthday, and held his own in 17 games.

That winter, before the 2012 season, Lavarnway’s stock hit its peak. He cracked the MLB.com prospect list (No. 93) as well as Baseball Prospectus (No. 98). But from that point on it only went downhill.

He got into 46 games that summer for Boston but slumped badly. He rebounded a bit in another short stint in 2013, but then he missed a chunk of 2014 with a broken hamate bone in his hand. The Red Sox finally decided to move on.

Lavarnway then quickly became a journeyman. He bounced around waivers in December — From Boston, to the Dodgers, to the Cubs, and finally the Orioles. He briefly suited up for Baltimore in 2015, and when that didn’t last he found his way to the Braves and hit decently enough. But in 2016 the Braves kept him in Triple-A until releasing him in May, at which point he went to the Blue Jays and played in Double-A. Oy, wrong direction.

And now he’s with Oakland, his seventh organization in two calendar years (though he never played for two of them, just passing thru on waivers).

Offense

Lavarnway’s hitting profile has changed over the course of his career. It only took him three years to zip from the draft all the way up the system to MLB, and along the way he showed two distinct skills: power and walks, with everything else grading out about normal (AVG, strikeouts, etc.).

During that time, from 2008-11, he was regularly hitting double-digit homers in a half-season of playing time (catcher, after all), with isolated slugging marks of .200 or more (up to .317 in Triple-A). Meanwhile, his BB% was bouncing between 10.5% and 16% — either way, far above average (8%). When he got his first cup of coffee in Boston, he showed flashes of both skills.

But then it all went away, and I’m not sure why. For now I’ve only dug deep enough to say that it wasn’t an obvious injury; his problems began two years before his broken hand.

In 2012, right as Lavarnway was primed to break out and earn his spot, he instead posted an awful .459 OPS (19 wRC+) in 46 games. In 2013 he managed to scratch out an average line in 25 games in the bigs (104 wRC+), but it was becoming clear that his power was quickly vanishing entirely and his walk rate wasn’t translating to MLB. And then he got hurt. On the bright side, he did finally start drawing walks in the majors in his sporadic 2015 playing time (11.3%).

Lavarnway, AAA (1,258 PAs): .282/.374/.440, 128 wRC+, 34 HR, 11.6% BB, 17.2% Ks
Lavarnway, MLB (407 PAs): .198/.258/.316, 53 wRC+, 7 HR, 7.1% BB, 24.3% Ks

However, in those AAA numbers, if you cut out his monster 2011 performance and just look at his 1,000 plate appearances since his power disappeared in 2012, that slugging percentage drops all the way to .394 and the wRC+ is more like 117. As encouraging as his Triple-A career looks on its surface, without that long-lost power he doesn’t bring much to the table except some walks.

Defense

Let’s check the scouting reports! Here’s Baseball America in 2012:

Lavarnway's defensive improvement is a tribute to his intelligence and work ethic. He lacks athleticism and agility, but he has transformed himself from a dreadful receiver to an adequate one. While his arm strength is fringy, his quick release and throwing accuracy allowed him to erase 38 percent of basestealers in 2011. With well below-average speed, his only other option is first base.

Another site called SoxProspects.com, in 2014:

Rough overall catching skills. Limited range behind the dish and slow reactions. Tends to stab at offerings, and his catching hand drifts when framing pitches. Average blocking skills, he needs to improve how he controls balls bouncing out in front of him and the fluidity of his footwork. Has made ample strides with his catch-and-release mechanics since joining the organization. Hard worker dedicated to honing craft. Despite improvements, catching skills are still limited. Began playing first base in 2014 and has been seeing the majority of his playing time at that position.

I’m not interested in metrics like DRS or UZR for catchers, but we can at least look at his work against the running game — 32% of base stealers caught in the minors, but only 19% in the majors. I haven’t found anything to suggest he’s a specifically good pitch framer, either.

Sounds like defense isn’t a strength of Lavarnway’s game.

Fun facts!

A few more tidbits before we finish!

  • Lavarnway is one of nine players who will represent the A’s in the World Baseball Classic, specifically for Team Israel.
  • Yale has only produced two other MLB players since 1980: Ron Darling and Craig Breslow, also both former A’s.
  • His Wikipedia page rivals (though doesn’t quite match or surpass) the length and detail of Sam Fuld’s.
  • Also did I mention he has adorable dogs?

Verdict

I’m usually pretty good at finding the bright side of things, and identifying at least some slim outside hope why a player might have a little breakout in him. I’m not immediately seeing that in Lavarnway, who appears to simply be some catching depth with a bit of MLB experience — that’s something every team can use in its system.

None of that is meant as any kind of insult. Guys like Jaff Decker and Chris Parmelee have a 98% chance of toiling away in Triple-A Nashville and never reaching Oakland, it’s just that I can squint and envision a dream scenario in which they become the next diamond in the rough and discover themselves in green and gold. Happens all the time here.

If Lavarnway makes it to Oakland, though, it’s probably just to cover for an injury. And that’s still an important role, one which the A’s have called on each of the last several years — from Bruce Maxwell and Matt McBride, to Carson Blair and Bryan Anderson, to Stephen Vogt and Luke Montz, and late-season emergency acquisitions like George Kottaras and Geovany Soto. Catchers get hurt all the time, and the righty whom the A’s are rolling with this year (Josh Phegley) just missed almost all of 2016, though he is reportedly back to 100% entering the spring (full update from Susan Slusser, S.F. Chronicle).

There were some bargains on the free agent market this winter, including Chris Iannetta and Kurt Suzuki for under $2 million each. But the A’s didn’t need a big leaguer, they needed a guy to stash in the minors in case of emergency. Lavarnway isn’t an exciting breakout candidate at this point, but he’s more than capable of filling that depth role for Oakland.