Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Lavarnway adds intrigue to catching position

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 19: Ryan Lavarnway #59 of the Cincinnati Reds hits a three-run home run in the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on July 19, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 19: Ryan Lavarnway #59 of the Cincinnati Reds hits a three-run home run in the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on July 19, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Ryan Lavarnway made his impressive Cincinnati Reds debut last night going 3-for-4 with 6 RBIs. Could Lavarnway really challenge for a permanent spot on the roster?

The Cincinnati Reds made a flurry of moves on Thursday that included the signing of journeyman catcher Ryan Lavarnway to a one-year Major League contract. With Tucker Barnhart, Curt Casali, and Kyle Farmer all on the shelf, the Reds turned to Lavarnway last night and he delivered in a big way. Is Ryan Lavarnway in the mix to be the Reds long-term solution behind the plate?

While it’s easy to carried away with Lavarnway’s 6-RBI performance last night, let’s also be careful not to dismiss his 3-for-4 night at the plate. Lavarnway was once a top 10 prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization and a heckuva college player at Yale University.

In 2007, Lavarnway led the NCAA in batting average (.467) and slugging percentage (.873). He also had 14 home runs that season to go along with 55 RBIs and a 25-game hitting streak. So let’s be cautious before we dismiss last night’s performance.

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Since being drafted by the Red Sox in 2008, Lavarnway has never lived up to his potential once getting opportunities in the big leagues. For his career, Lavarnway is .208 hitter 7 home runs and 43 RBIs. His best season came in 2013 with Boston, when he slashed .299/.329/.429 in 25 games with the Red Sox.

Since that time, Lavarnway has bounced around the Major Leagues, seeing time with the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Lavarnway was most recently part of the New York Yankees organization, playing 35 games with Scranton-Wilkes Barre, the Bronx Bombers’ Triple-A affiliate.

So, naturally the question becomes, after seeing Lavarnway’s performance last night, is he in the mix to be part of the Cincinnati Reds catching platoon when the roster is at full strength? I wouldn’t go that far yet, as it was just one game. However, with no one on the Reds catching staff showing much in the way of hitting this season, Lavarnway’s bat could keep him on the roster.

Tucker Barnhart has had a horrendous season at the dish. While hitting has never been Tucker’s calling card, he’s batting below the Mendoza line. A .191 batting average and .290 on-base percentage will not get it done. Expecting your catcher to hit over .300 is reserved for some of the elite-level players, but Barnhart is a career .250 hitter and has fallen well short of that this season.

Curt Casali, who a lot of Reds fans have been clamoring for to get more playing time, seemed to struggle when he was given the opportunity. Earlier in the season, when the majority of his starts came with a left-hander on the mound, Casali performed very well. However, with increased playing time, the former Tampa Bay Ray has struggled to maintain consistency.

Casali has played in 26 games, including 21 starts, since the beginning of June. After slashing .298/.355/.452 to begin the season, Casali’s numbers have really dropped off over the last two months. In those 26 games, Casali is slashing .197/.317/.379 with 23 strikeouts in 66 at-bats. Casali had just 21 strikeouts in his previous 36 games played and a .807 OPS.

Kyle Farmer, while able to setup behind the plate, is much more valuable as a utility infielder who can play catcher in a pinch. Seeing as how Farmer never started a game at catcher all season before Barnhart’s injury speaks to role he’s likely to play once the Reds are 100% healthy. Farmer should be viewed as an emergency catcher or one who can make a spot-start.

All this leads us back to Ryan Lavarnway. Could he be a long-term solution behind the plate for the Cincinnati Reds. For now, no. However, if Lavarnway parlays last night’s performance into a consistent showing at the plate, the Reds may be hesitant to send him back to Triple-A once the reinforcements come.

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Both Lavarnway and Juan Graterol played well in their brief stint with the Reds this season, and given Cincinnati’s interest in J.T. Realmuto this offseason, I think it’s safe to say that there are definitely question marks surrounding the catching situation. Tyler Stephenson, the team’s top catching prospect, is at least a year away from his debut. The next two months will be interesting.