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PawSox prefer to platoon catchers

July 11, 2011

Rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway, left, is content to platoon with Luis Exposito and work on his defensive skills in his spare time.

Some thoughts designed to close the books on the first half of the 2011 season for the Pawtucket Red Sox …
For the past several seasons the PawSox have sworn by a platoon situation at catcher.
“We run a 2-2 split,” manager Arnie Beyeler explained. “They get their work, so that’s what’s important.”
Yet are there enough reps to go around? Is having an equal stake in the game-calling responsibilities more of a hindrance than an actual benefit? To anoint someone the starter and backup, isn’t that more conducive to forecasting future results rather than analyzing a situation where one guy is labeled No. 1 while the other is 1-A?
Luis Exposito and Ryan Lavarnway represent the latest catching duo to strap on the gear on an on-again, off-again basis for the PawSox. This 50/50 partnership way of handling arguably the most critical position on the field dates back to the 2008 season when George Kottaras and Dusty Brown were the it pair. The next two seasons witnessed Mark Wagner and Brown vie to show that they should be next in line. Right before his trade to Pittsburgh last month, Michael McKenry was sharing time with Exposito.
Kottaras would go on to back up Jason Varitek in 2009 before the deadline trade that yielded Victor Martinez cut into his playing time. Now Kottaras is a backup with Milwaukee. Getting traded to the Pirates worked in McKenry’s favor. He’s on a major-league roster, which probably wouldn’t have happened had he remained with the Red Sox. (When Jarrod Saltalamacchia was out sick a few days while the BoSox were in New York in early June, it was Exposito, not fellow 40-man roster member McKenry, who was selected.)
At this point, it might make more sense to drop the platoon and anoint a true No. 1. Varitek’s not getting any younger, meaning sooner or later the Sox are going to have to find a catcher to complement Saltalamacchia. By bestowing a regular workload on some farmhand, you’re more than providing a puncher’s chance for someone to become the heir to Varitek’s throne. You’re sending a message that the opportunity is yours. Either run with it or step aside and watch your catching cohort receive a shot.
In the eyes of the Sox, having two catching prospects is luxury not to be trifled with.
“Exposito is on the 40-man and Lavarnway is a priority guy,” Beyeler said. “That’s why there’s an equal split and you’ve got to treat them that way. Certainly it’s tough, but we’ll run them into the DH role when they’re not catching in order for them to get their at-bats. We’ll try to do the best we can to get them 400-500 at-bats and time behind the plate.”
It’s easy to be smitten with Lavarnway’s offensive game. The Yale product is hitting a robust .343 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in 99 at-bats with Pawtucket, and has an otherworldly 1.061 OPS. Compare that to Exposito, who in 55 games owns a .218 average with five homers and 22 driven in.
Lavarnway’s bat has never been the question. Like most young players who have one lingering hurdle to conquer before making the leap to the major-league club, Lavarnway is trying to show he’s a solid, if not passable, defensive catcher. With the situation as it is and Lavarnway accustomed to splitting time – he and Tim Federowicz have been side-by-side at three minor-league stops, including this season in Portland – the 23-year-old knows that he must sharpen his skills on days Exposito is catching.
“On days I’m DH’ing, I can get a lot more drill work in the bullpen and work on some of the subtler skills that you might not be able to work extra on if you’re catching every day,” Lavarnway said. “Myself and Luis are competing against each other, but neither one of us are going to be making that decision. There’s no point to compete against each other on a personal level. It’s about being good teammates because the bottom line is that if we’re good enough, we’ll get a chance whether it’s with this organization or another. We’re trying to help each other in a mutual, beneficial way.”
Lavarnway believes that a platoon can prove advantageous.
“It definitely keeps us a little bit healthier. Catching three or four days out of seven instead of six out of seven gives your body a better chance to last throughout the year. It keeps your abs and core stronger so that you can continue to excel throughout the whole year.”
If the past has taught us anything, it’s that there are no winners or losers in Pawtucket’s backstop platoon, only survivors. It falls upon Lavarnway and Exposito to make the most of their chances and see where they stand at the end of the day.
Felix Doubront will be the first to tell you that he did not have a good first half. Injuries and ineffectiveness removed a great deal of the luster bestowed upon him heading into the season, when the 23-year-old was lauded as the top-pitching prospect for the PawSox.
Doubront, who pitched five innings for Portland Monday at New Hampshire, allowing one run while striking out nine, was able to head into the Triple-A All-Star break on a high note after tossing seven shutout innings at Syracuse last week. His previous two starts for Pawtucket saw the lefty shelled for a total of 12 runs (10 earned).
“I’m going to remember that start for the second half, keep going and throwing like that,” Doubront said. “I want another opportunity to throw in Fenway (Park).”
Doubront could emerge as an X-factor for Boston in the second half. He’s shown he can handle both starting and relieving, a double punch not often seen in pitchers dangled on the market the closer it gets to the July 31st trading deadline.
The idea of injured Red Sox players seeking second opinions is bordering on ridiculous. Blame it on how Boston’s team doctors handled Jacoby Ellsbury last year, when the speedy outfielder was originally diagnosed with bruised ribs that were later revealed as being cracked. That’s a pretty big difference, hence why you can’t blame Ellsbury for asking the Red Sox for permission to pursue information regarding his condition elsewhere.
This season alone has witnessed Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz and recently Ryan Kalish all seek medical opinions from outside doctors. Kalish, who flew to Pittsburgh last week to receive some answers regarding a strained muscle in his neck, was noncommittal about why he sought a second opinion. Yet in wake of how the team’s medical personnel handled Ellsbury’s condition, the question is this: are there trust issues that will only be resolved if players go elsewhere and receive confirmation that what they were told in Boston is, indeed, correct?

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