Increasingly, it has become a distressing exploration of "what if."
Since 2010, the Red Sox outfield has served as a sort of Bermuda Triangle. In terms of raw talent and promise, it is an area that has been unmatched in organizational talent. In terms of the players who have actually been on the field, that has been anything but the case.
In mid-2009, it was easy for those around the Red Sox to peer into a crystal ball and see a glimmering future for the 2013 season. Team officials could be forgiven for day-dreaming about an outfield of Jacoby Ellsbury, Ryan Kalish and Ryan Westmoreland, three players with the tools and baseball acumen that suggested the potential for All-Star status, the foundation of a dynamic Red Sox team that could feature speed, power, defense, athleticism . . .
Instead, the notion of the once-dazzling trio is unlikely ever to be realized by even a pair of those players performing at the height of their powers at the same time. Instead, there is a sense of counter-factual dismay about the fact that all three of those players have been denied in their attempts to achieve their once-sky-high potential with the Sox.
Another chapter in this group's star-crossed fate was opened on Friday, with the revelation that Kalish, according to multiple major league sources, almost surely will require surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder by Dr. Lewis Yocum next week. While the extent of the damage to his shoulder is not yet known, Kalish is expected to miss all of spring training and then multiple months of the regular season before he can begin even a rehab assignment.
The result is that Kalish faces yet another extremely challenging season in which, even if he returns to the field, there is a good chance that he will be unable to display the full extent of his talents. The pattern is becoming familiar.
In 2007, in his first pro season, Kalish got off to an outrageous start for the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League. In 23 games, he hit .368/.471/.540/1.011 with three homers and 18 steals in 21 chances. Then, he suffered a broken hamate that ended his season but for which, it seemed at the time, he would not need surgery.
However, several weeks after the break, it became clear that he would in fact need a procedure, and the delay meant that he was extremely limited in the strength and conditioning work he could do that offseason. The result was a struggle in 2008. Kalish was healthy enough to play 114 games for Single-A Greenville and High-A Lancaster, but he was physically weak, and the season proved a trying one in which he managed to hit .273/.365/.363/.727 with a total of 19 steals.
However, he was healthy that offseason and produced a terrific season in 2009, hitting .279/.364/.457/.820 with 18 homers and 21 steals for High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. He was named Red Sox minor league player of the year.
He continued that strong performance into 2010, when he tore up Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket (combined .294/.382/.502/.884) before an impressive big league debut over the final two months of that year.
Kalish seemed like he was very, very close to a long career as an everyday big league outfielder, someone capable of a broad set of above-average skills (speed, power, on-base ability, defense). Indeed, no one would have batted an eye had the Sox committed to him as an everyday outfielder for the 2011 season.
Instead, the team signed Carl Crawford and sent Kalish back down to Triple-A, with the expectation that he'd be ready to return to the big leagues as soon as any of the team's everyday outfielders (Crawford, Ellsbury, J.D. Drew) suffered an injury. But it was Kalish who suffered the injury, a labrum tear while making a diving catch in the outfield in April.
Again, the team tried to let the injury heal without surgery. For the entire season, Kalish tried to rehab from both the shoulder injury and then from a neck injury that developed during his rehab. But, in September, the team recognized that surgery on a bulging disc in his neck could not be avoided. Worse, in December, it became apparent that the shoulder injury would also require a repair.
The net result was that Kalish lost his offseason, lost his spring training, lost his strength. When he finally started playing, there were again flashes of the prospect who seemed likely to become a Red Sox fixture in 2010, but such performances couldn't be sustained. Kalish hit .265/.347/.424/.771 in 33 minor league games, and .229/.272/.260/.532 in 36 big league games.
In September, his right shoulder injury prevented him from swinging over the final three weeks of the season. However, the assumption was rest, strengthening and rehab would address the issue.
Again, it did not, and so now Kalish faces surgery at a time when his teammates will be getting ready to report to spring training. For the fourth time in seven professional years, he'll miss a considerable chunk of the year due to an injury (or injuries) that require surgery. The fact that his career is getting detoured for a third straight year is ominous.
In comparison, Ellsbury's plight seems modest. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact that his injuries have had on the Red Sox.
In 2010, there is a very good chance that the Sox -- who finished that year with 89 wins -- could have been on par with the Yankees and Rays had Ellsbury been healthy. But his broken ribs limited him to just 18 games, and the Sox struggled to get production from his replacements in the outfield.
Ellsbury returned in 2011 with one of the most all-around dominant seasons in Red Sox history, a game-changing force at the plate, on the bases and in the outfield. But in the earliest days of the 2012 season, the subluxation of the right shoulder that Ellsbury endured denied him a chance to build upon that breakout season. He missed half the year, and then was unable to resemble the dynamic star of the previous year, hitting .271/.313/.370/.682 with just four homers and 19 steals in 74 games.
And then there is Westmoreland. It remains head-spinning to see the numbers the outfielder put up in his lone season playing in the minor leagues. In 60 games for the Lowell Spinners, he hit .296 with a .401 OBP, .484 slugging mark, .885 OPS, seven homers, 25 extra-base hits and 19 steals in as many attempts over the course of 60 games.
Those numbers were accompanied by five-tool potential that earned him the title of the top prospect in the New York-Penn League as a 19-year-old. He seemed to have all of the on- and off-field attributes of a superstar in the making.
But the following spring, the outfielder was diagnosed with a life-threatening cavernous malformation on his brain. He required surgery on his brain stem at the start of 2010, a procedure that necessitated an arduous rehab process simply to be able to resume normal day-to-day functions.
Even so, he made extraordinary strides in his comeback to the point where he was able to play in a pair of rehab games in the Dominican instructional league after the 2011 season. However, while he continued his rehab in 2012, he again required surgery for a complication of a cavernous malformation in his brain.
Obviously, issues of quality of life are far more important for Westmoreland than his baseball playing future, and on that account, the surgeries that he's undergone have been successful. At a young age (22), he maintains extraordinary perspective and inspirational determination, willing to continue to do everything he can to pursue his dream of playing baseball even as he's mindful that such concerns are secondary.
Still, it is hard at times to shut out the notion of what might have been on the baseball field, of the seemingly limitless ability that, in 2012 or 2013, could have seen him as an emerging star in Boston.
Again, there are issues of personal well-being that are far more important than roster considerations. Nonetheless, as the Sox stand on the doorstep to spring training 2013, it is becoming ever more apparent how significant injuries have been in transforming an area of the team that could have offered breathtaking on-field skill and promise to one for which the Sox are engaged in something of a scramble.
Virtually every move in the outfield made by the Sox over the last three years -- the addition of Carl Crawford (himself part of the ill-fated Sox outfield history of recent years), of Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney and Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes -- in some measure reflects not just on what the Sox are trying to add, but also on the absence of players who once seemed like a central part of the team's future but whose health has not permitted such aspirations to be realized.