Every year it seems, a young player in Red Sox spring training excites fans and writers. Two years ago it was Jackie Bradley Jr. Last year it was Xander Bogearts. This year-Mookie Betts. But 5 seasons ago, there was a 20-year-old who possibly was better than all of them.
Ryan Kalish, born in 1968, had some local roots. Both of his parents came from Dorchester. He was born in California and grew up in Shrewsbury, NJ. From junior high on, he attracted attention. As a freshman, he struck out 10 in his first varsity start. The following year, he threw a no-hitter while batting .507 and stealing 32 bases. As a senior it was .422 with 30 SB’s. He was also a standout quarterback and a top forward in basketball. At age 18, he was named the Jersey Shore Sports Hall of Fame High School Male Athlete of the Year.
Out of high school, he was number 2 New Jersey prospect in Baseball America. After considering college at Rutgers and Virginia, Kalish signed with the Sox for $600,000, a high bonus figure for the ninth round. (He fell to that level because of possible college commitments)
His minor league career had lots of ups and few downs. With the short-season Lowell Spinners in 07, he was batting .368 with a .471 OBP and .540 SLG and was leading the league in stolen bases and runs scored. But on July 16 he was hit on the wrist by a pitch and missed the rest of the year. He eventually needed surgery.
In January 08, however, Peter Gammons called him one of the top 3 hitting prospect in the Sox organization and he was projected as the starting left fielder in 2011. But, recovering from the surgery, he struggled a bit in Single-A Greenville and Lancaster.
After a slow start in 09, he advanced to Double-A Portland and with his wrist finally healed, he exploded to .302 with a .561 SLG. He led Sox minor leaguers in walks, runs, and total bases. He stole 21 bases in 27 tries. 2010 saw further improvement. Between Portland and Pawtucket, he went .294/.382/.502.
Ryan was the talk of camp in 2010. Gordon Edes wrote that he “gives off the vibes of one on a collision course with better things.” Gammons agreed. After impressing in Pawtucket, he was brought up on July 31 and immediately cracked the lineup. He got a hit in his first at bat, and later that day his first rbi. On August 6 he drilled his first homer, and later hit two grand slams at Fenway, tying a Sox rookie record. He was also high on rookie lists in extra base hits and runs batted in. Kalish also made some circus catches in the outfield, including one designated as “tops of the day” by ESPN Sports Center. For the season, he batted .252 in 43 games with 4 homers and 24 ribbies and stole 10 of 11 bases. His SLG of .405 showed power. He would receive the Harry Agannis Award as top Sox rookie.
Kalish should have started in the Sox outfield on Opening Day 2011. But roster problems intervened. The team had paid big money to Carl Crawford and also had Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, and JD Drew. For that reason, he was sent down and started the year with the PawSox.
It was a bad move all around. Crawford hit .255, lowest of his career. Cameron and Drew would soon disappear. And early in the IL season, Kalish, ever aggressive, slammed into a wall and hurt his shoulder. Things would never be the same.
The shoulder failed to heal, and he had surgery and missed nearly the entire year. He made it to the Sox roster in 2012, but was not the same player. After batting .229 with little power and much less speed,he was back in Pawtucket by July. He also would perform in Single and Double-A, but things did not improve. In 2013 he underwent two more surgeries, the second involving removal of a disc in his neck and the insertion of a metal plate. Rehab would take 3-6 months. The Sox, seeing Kalish’s career had gone south, non-tendered him, equal to a release. 2014 saw him appear in 57 games with the Chicago Cubs, but his power was gone-.248 with just 5 extra base hits. He stole only 3 bases. Last December, Kalish considered a minor league contract with Toronto, but no deal was made.
Would things have been different if Ryan had stayed with the Sox in 2011? Impossible to say. He should definitely have started in their outfield, and putting him behind Crawford and Cameron was definitely a mistake. It is well known that Kalish’s aggressive style of play made him vulnerable to injuries. All we can say for sure is that a poor decision by the team probably ended a very promising career.