Let's face it: "designated hitter" does not have a ring to it.
There's no swagger, no punch, no sex appeal. There's never been a Big DH on Campus. The DH was never named prom king, and never got the girl. There are no Hall of Famers who spent even one-third of their career at-bats as a DH.
It evokes only one thing: the image of the slow-footed, iron-gloved baseball equivalent of a berserker; an offensive juggernaut whose only job is to murder baseballs with a bat. It's as far from the poetry of baseball as you can get without actually being backyard whiffleball.
But the culture of baseball arrived at a point 40 years ago that decided American League pitchers were incapable of standing in the batter's box without slipping into a coma. Thus, new opportunities for fat guys to play were created. The inevitable extrapolation of the DH rule is that junior circuit teams loaded with position players but in need of offense would build one from the ground up. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ryan Lavarnway.
For those unfamiliar, Lavarnway is tearing up the International League. Promoted on June 13th after posting a slash line of .284/.360/.510 with Double-A Portland, the right-handed slugger has only improved with Pawtucket, racking up a jaw-dropping .365/.434/.687 over 30 games in Triple-A, to go along with nine homers and 25 RBI in that span. His combined home run total in 2011 (23) already matches his career high.
Lavarnway is a converted catcher, having only started learning the position halfway through college at Yale. By all accounts, the guy is a sponge for information on all aspects of baseball, especially receiving and calling the game. He's reportedly made incredible strides from where he began with the organization. Unfortunately, by unanimous consent, his catching skills still fall short of the rigors expected at the major league level.
If (and it is a BIG if) Lavarnway continues his absurd pace at Triple-A through the end of the summer, the Red Sox will have difficult decisions in the offseason. David Ortiz is having a resurgent season, his ninth with Boston.
But Theo Epstein & Co. have shown reluctance to commit multi-year contracts to players over 35. If Ortiz's contract demands include a salary increase and two-plus years guaranteed, the Red Sox may take a hard line and let Papi walk. In all likelihood this means Ortiz goes to New York, who will probably not be re-upping Jorge Posada.
It tarnishes my soul a little to think of David Ortiz, the most charismatic guy in baseball, walking away from my home team for pinstripes. But cold though it sounds, Ortiz's 2011 season presents a potential value in the form of Type A freeagent compensation, which David would undoubtedly qualify for if he holds his pace.
As far as Lavarnway goes, his right-handed bat would balance the currently lefty-heavy lineup. And he offers an intriguing hybrid player that is seldom seen besides Victor Martinez and Mike Napoli. If Lavarnway took over the bulk of the DH at-bats, while also serving as a backup catcher and (perhaps) learning to play corner infield when needed, he would offer the Red Sox a way to keep his bat in the lineup, while reducing his defensive liability over the course of the season.
Are there risks? Absolutely. Lavarnway has not one major league at-bat to his credit. And many teams are loath to have their DH catch, given the acute health risks to a player who's main responsibility would be offensive production.
This is not precisely a ringing endorsement of this plan. I'd hate to see David Ortiz leave, and Ryan Lavarnway still has a lot to prove. But at 24, the most polished bat in the Red Sox system is just now discovering his best playing days. I'd love for them to be in Boston.
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