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01/19/12 6:11 PM EST

Lavarnway trying to earn everything he can get

BOSTON -- Ryan Lavarnway's reward for playing winter ball in Venezuela was contracting an unsavory virus that forced him to lose 20 pounds and come home early.

Trying to win a roster spot with the Red Sox in Spring Training figures to be a far more enjoyable experience for Lavarnway, even if he is likely to get caught in a numbers crunch.

Lavarnway was recognized at the Boston Baseball Writers' Association of America dinner Thursday night as the Red Sox's top prospect in 2011. He will get to Spring Training nearly three weeks early with the other catchers to participate in drills with catching instructor Gary Tuck.

But after the Red Sox acquired Kelly Shoppach to back up Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it seems unlikely Lavarnway's 2012 season will start in the Major Leagues.

"I would like to think that I'm competing for a job," Lavarnway said.

Lavarnway has no issue with competition. In fact, he sounds energized by it.

"I had no disillusions I was going to be handed a spot before they signed Shoppach," Lavarnway said. "I'm going in trying to earn everything I can get."

Over the past couple of years, Lavarnway has rocketed through the farm system. He is the rare catcher who seems capable of putting up big offensive numbers once he gets to the Majors for good.

"Last year, I went into Spring Training looking to get into my Double-A season," said Lavarnway. "This year, I'm looking to get ready to compete and play at the Major League level, whether it's at the beginning of the year or some point later."

Things became a bit surreal for Lavarnaway as last season came to a close. With the Red Sox playing for their lives, and Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek both banged up, Lavarnway belted two home runs in the second-to-last game.

In the final game, as the Red Sox tried to stave off their September collapse and make it to the postseason, Lavarnway again got the start, even though Saltalamacchia had been deemed healthy enough to play. Lavarnway went 0-for-5 and left nine men on base.

"I was less concerned with not getting any hits and more pleased with the way I caught that last game," said Lavarwnay. "I went to sleep the night before that thinking about how I had not caught [Jon] Lester before, what kind of game I was going to call with him. I was pleased with the way we worked together. I took away that I caught a pretty good game and that I couldn't believe that we lost."

Lavarnway is acutely aware of the fact that the label on him is that he's just about ready offensively but still needs to complete his development on defense.

It's possible that nobody in baseball history has had his first two Major League games as a catcher come in the pressurized environment Lavarnway and the Red Sox were in those two September nights in Camden Yards.

"Overall, I was pleased with my performance," Lavarnway said. "[The media has] been questioning my skills for a while back there. I know two games doesn't prove anything, necessarily, but it's a start."

Lavarnway tried to build on those two games once he got to Venezuela, but after a while, things got out of his control.

"I'm not 100 percent sure if there's a specific name. It's just a stomach virus," Lavarnway said. "I lost, like, 20 pounds in eight days. It got pretty ugly."

With the weight back on and his stomach no longer in knots, Lavarnway can appreciate the good things about his trip to Venezuela.

"It was good," Lavarnway said. "It's a beautiful country. It made me appreciate everything that we have here. They love their baseball. The fans were loud, and [they were] in the game, every pitch. It was [like] the seventh game of the World Series. It was a good experience that unfortunately ended too quickly."

But Lavarnway's career is just getting started, giving the Red Sox hope that their catcher of the future isn't all that far away.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.