Yesterday, the Boston Red Sox announced the signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to multi-year deals that will add up to nearly $200 million. In order to make room on their 40 man roster, Boston designated two players for assignment: former Brewer Juan Francisco and catcher Ryan Lavarnway. The Brewers would be smart to jump on Lavarnway.
While catcher may not seem like a glaring need for the Brewers given the MVP-caliber year Jonathon Lucroy had, the Brewers have little depth behind Luc and the arbitration eligible Martin Maldonado. Juan Centeno was claimed earlier this offseason from the Mets and is the only other catcher on the 40 man roster.
Given Lavarnway’s age and minor league track record, he would be a low-risk/high-reward player for the Brewers to have stashed in the cupboard. Lavarnway is only 27 years old and is a former top 100 prospect, ranking 93rd as late as 2012 by MLB.com. Since being drafted out of Yale in 2008, Lavarnway has consistently produced across all levels of the minors, with a career .283/.375/.479 slash line with three seasons of 20+ home runs, topping out at 32 in 116 games between AA and AAA in 2011. While he may no longer have the same power upside, his consistent approach and ability to get on base would be valuable assets to a Brewers franchise with an overwhelming history of all or nothing hitters.
The knock on Lavarnway has been his work behind the plate, but he has improved over the course of his career. Over his last 3 full minor league seasons behind the plate, he threw out 32%, 37%, and 33% of possible base stealers (MLB average in 2014 was 28%). His minor league career fielding percentage behind the plate is .993, which has been the Major League average the past two seasons. While Ryan is certainly not the Gold Glove caliber defender fans used to seeing in Luc and Maldy, he has shown he can be at least serviceable.
Ryan has never really been given a consistent opportunity to contribute every day at the big league level, appearing in only 97 games across the last 4 seasons. He struggled significantly during his largest sample size, slashing .157/.211/.248 across 153 at bats in 2012 while striking out nearly 27% of the time, five points higher than his minor league career rate. He showed much more promise in 25 games in 2013, hitting .299/.329/.429 in 77 at bats at the major league level. His OPS+ over that short sample was 106, a more than acceptable number for a catcher. He had only 10 plate appearances last season as he fell out of favor with the Boston front office.
Jonathon Lucroy is controlled on a VERY team friendly through 2016 with a team option for 2017. Given the current free agent landscape and the deals that keep getting handed out, Luc could very well price himself out of the Brewers budget at that point. Martin Maldonado is eligible for arbitration as a Super 2 player and is projected to earn a cool $1 mil this year (according to MLB Trade Rumors). With his extra year of arbitration eligibility, Maldy could soon become more expensive than his .225/.291/.360 career line is worth as a backup. Lavarnway, on the other hand, is younger than Maldonado and only has slightly over a year of combined service time. He wouldn’t likely be eligible for arbitration until he completes another 2 full seasons in the bigs, and won’t be eligible for free agency after at least another 5 years.
With Ryan Lavarnway being designated for assignment by the Red Sox, his time with Boston is likely at its close. The Brewers should take advantage of the fact that he could be had for a low level minor leaguer and solidify their catching depth going forward. Given Lavarnway’s upside, parting with a lower level minor leaguer (Kyle Heckathorn?) should be a no brainer.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference