In many – perhaps even most – organizations, Ryan Kalish would be a starting outfielder on Opening Day of the 2011 season. Called up to the major leagues on July 31, hours before the trade deadline, the 22-year-old proved capable of translating his talents to the big leagues.
In the end, Kalish’s final numbers were modest. He hit .252 with a .305 on-base percentage, .405 slugging mark, .710 OPS, four homers and 10 steals (amazingly, he led the Jacoby Ellsbury-less team in thefts) in 53 games.
But Kalish was not overwhelmed at the major league level, and flashed power, advanced baserunning ability, defensive range, a strong arm and, overall, a solid approach at the plate. What he showed – in a year that he started in Double-A – was an ability to adapt to his level of competition and, even at an early stage of his development, to permit his talent to play.
Such traits led to high praise for the young outfielder, and big visions for his future. Torey Lovullo, who managed Kalish at Triple-A Pawtucket last year, was among his boosters.
Lovullo had been impressed by Kalish’s competitiveness and his ability to remain even-keeled and to find a way to contribute even when struggling at the plate. But, more importantly, he saw the outfielder adjust in a way that distinguished him.
The PawSox manager overheard Kalish talking with hitting coach Gerald Perry one day about his need to take a more aggressive approach with two strikes, especially against left-handers. That day, Kalish crushed a down-and-away fastball with two strikes, sending it – by Lovullo’s estimate – about 445 feet over the left-center field wall.
“That one moment put me over the top,” Lovullo – who has since joined the Blue Jays to serve as a big league first base coach – said late in the season. “I watched him run around the bases, shaking my head thinking how great his aptitude was, his application to the moment, and just watching it go in a 24-hour period from something he was thinking about working on to watching it happen right before my very eyes.”
Lovullo had already been bullish on Kalish’s future, but that moment helped lead him to a dramatic and bold prediction.
“He’s going to be an impact big leaguer for many years, and has the potential to be a 10-year All-Star. I said it and I stand by it,” said Lovullo. “I believe in Ryan Kalish because of his heart and his head. He has the mind of a champion. He goes out there and competes on a different level than anybody I’ve ever managed.
“To me, he has some great similarities to [Indians center fielder] Grady Sizemore. Grady was near and dear to me, and I haven’t put that on anybody since meeting Grady. They are just similar in a lot of ways. They attack the game in the same way, they have the same beliefs, the same values, the same standards, and they hold themselves to the highest level to go out there and compete and be successful.”
That, of course, is high praise. Yet given such a rosy outlook, it is rather fascinating to contemplate a reality that is becoming ever more apparent.
Kalish, for all his talents, seems destined to start the year in Triple-A. Barring an injury, the Red Sox outfield is crowded with the newly signed Carl Crawford joining J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and fourth outfielder Mike Cameron.
At this stage of his career, the Sox would are extremely unlikely to have Kalish on the major league roster in a reserve role that might hinder his development by limiting his playing time.
The team believes that, in a vacuum, it is in a player’s best interests to spend a full year in Triple-A before breaking into the majors as a regular. Sometimes a major league need forces the club to cut some corners, but in theory, the Sox want a player to ripen fully in the minors before they become a big leaguer.
When the team promoted Kalish to Pawtucket, it was with a blueprint for him – and, for that matter, Josh Reddick and Daniel Nava – to spend the spend the rest of the 2010 season in Triple-A before, perhaps, a September call-up. Injuries to Ellsbury, Cameron and Jeremy Hermida (who was designated for assignment on July 31 to make room for Kalish) scuttled that plan.
But while Kalish ended up in the big leagues, and was able to have a significant developmental experience while playing everyday, it wasn’t ideal.
“It probably would have been best for Kalish to stay in Triple-A for the rest of the season. Now, he’ll fight you on that. I wouldn’t fight too hard to say that was absolutely necessary. But it probably would have helped,” farm director Mike Hazen said earlier this offseason, while also praising the outfielder for being unfazed by his rapid ascent. “To see these kids come up as injury replacements is exciting, but I don’t know if it’s in the best interests of the team and I don’t know if it’s in the best interests of the kid in the long run.
“No kid will tell you that. They’re like, ‘Hey, give me the opportunity. Give me the shot.’ In the long run, it’s in their best interests to come up when they’re ready. That’s not always going to work out perfectly.”
In Kalish’s case, it did not.
Even so, it seems fair to ask what aspects of Kalish’s game could use refinement by a return to Triple-A. According to Lovullo, the needed adjustments represent “fine tuning,” rather than significant overhauls.
His routes on ground balls into the outfield could be cleaner. So could his motion in trying to field the ball in front of him, rather than to the side, so that he can transfer the ball and position his arm for a throw more efficiently. He can further refine the leg kick that is a key component of his timing and balance at the plate.
Yet those all represent relatively small concerns. So how does Kalish view the possibility of opening the year in the minors?
“If I go to Triple-A, it’s all good,” said Kalish. “I’ve got to keep growing as a player, keep getting better, getting myself better so I can help my teammates win, whether it be in Triple-A or up here.”
Kalish did not lament the signing of Crawford, even though it meant that he would almost certainly open the year in Pawtucket. To the contrary, true to Lovullo’s characterization of a sponge who thirsts for information, Kalish views the arrival of the dynamic Crawford as a phenomenal opportunity for his own growth.
“There’s more learning for me on an everyday level, even if I were never to play a day in the minors again or, shoot, if I don’t play baseball ever again,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to learn and grow as a player.
“Crawford is obviously elite, but something that I strive for is to steal bases and hit home runs with the best of them. Being able to watch him everyday is going to be an awesome opportunity.”
It is an opportunity that seems extremely likely – barring a major, unforeseen development – to receive application in the big leagues in the near future. For while Kalish is likely to begin the year in Triple-A, he figures significantly into the team’s plans going forward, likely at times in 2011, and almost certainly in 2012.
In some respects, even though the signing of Crawford has delayed Kalish’s likely big league arrival, it has made his big league future even more significant for the Sox. Crawford will be paid $142 million over the next seven years. Adrian Gonzalez – who will play in 2011 for a bargain $6.3 million deal – should receive an even more lucrative extension than Crawford for a similar term. By the start of next year, the homegrown Sox who were once inexpensive will have all reached arbitration eligibility, with corresponding rises in salaries.
The Sox will need a new wave of young players making little more than the big league minimum. And right now, with J.D. Drew’s five-year, $70 million deal set to expire at the end of the 2011 season, team officials expect that Kalish will be ready to succeed him as an everyday outfielder for a comparably modest wage.
There will almost certainly be a need for Kalish in 2012. That being the case, the Sox are in some ways fortunate that the same cannot be said for the start of the 2011 season.
Barring injury, the need for Kalish on the Red Sox’ current major roster is not acute. As a result, the organization can let Kalish put the finishing touches on his minor league development with the expectation that he will use that time to its fullest and be ready to apply those lessons when he returns to the majors.
“He will certainly have the right mental approach coming into next season in terms of what he needs to do to continue to improve to try to make sure that the next time that he comes up, whenever that is,” said Hazen, “he’ll never have to go down after that.”
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