A fan tries to catch a foul ball hit by New York Yankees batter Austin Kearns and deflects it away from Boston Red Sox left fielder Ryan Kalish at the wall in the seventh inning of their MLB American League baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York August 9, 2010. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL IMAGES OF THE DAY)

After Sunday night’s heartbreaker, the Sox have three games to shave 2.5 off of the Wildcard chase…

Ryan Kalish… Kalishnikov… AK-47… whichever nickname you prefer, has done quite a job in Jacoby Ellsbury’s stead.

The main piece of the Sox second-half patchwork outfield, Kalish seems to have worked himself into the Sox’ 2011 picture.

With incumbent left and center fielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury having missed most of 2010 due to injury, the Sox’ outfield picture is as unclear as any position on the team — third base, catcher, and the bullpen included.

While trades, arbitration, and free agency will drastically affect our outlook before April arrives, one thing for sure is that Ryan Kalish’s role with the Major League club will be a hot topic come Spring Training.

Perhaps the problem with Kalish is that he does fit into the 2011 roster. With Cameron and Ellsbury’s well-documented injury problems, the Sox will need to employ a reliable fourth outfielder who can fill in quite regularly — much like a 6th man in basketball; an extension of the starting lineup.

Kalish would fit this mold perfectly: he is cheap, has shown the ability to field all three outfield slots, and has enough chops to fill in at the bottom of the order without detracting from the team’s firepower. In addition, it could give the team additional time to evaluate his candidacy for a full-time starter’s role in 2012 and beyond.

However, that may only be the easy way out — solving a short-term need while keeping the fan base happy — and could hurt the team in the long term. Impressive as he’s been, his bat isn’t ready for prime time. He still needs to work a little on pitch recognition and making consistent contact — particularly with breaking balls, which he has had some difficulty with at times.

Forcing him onto the big league roster could stunt his development, keeping him from reaching his sky-high potential. Therefore, both the Sox and Kalish would be best served by sending him to AAA and where he could take a half- or a full-season to develop at the plate.

Ideally, Kalish could gain experience against near-big league caliber pitching at AAA, allowing the Sox to promote him mid-season with an eye for 2012. If he were able to show continued development in his power while reclaiming some of that stellar plate discipline from the low-minors, he could find himself as the Sox’ first home-grown corner outfielder since Trot Nixon in 1999.

Kalish at the Dish in ’10

While Kalish has impressed at times in his 2010 debut, his overall performance has been a mixed bag. In the field, he’s been spectacular — a 46.3 UZR/150 fueling hopes that he may be the sought-after power-speed centerfield combo that MLB teams dream of.

His bat, however, has been a different story, as a .731 OPS — including a .301 OBP — has left much to be desired.

The main drawback has been the outfielder’s near 1:4 BB:K rate, which, while not a major cause for concern for a rookie, leaves questions as to how much more development time he needs.

On the bright side, however, his plate discipline indicators have been quite good, and suggest walk and strikeout rates of just about 10 and 16 percent — far better than his current numbers. As for the discrepancy between his actual numbers and those suggested by his plate discipline indicators, this is often seen by young batters who need to refine their approach at the plate, which comes with experience.

But Kalish is a work in progress beyond his strike zone judgment. Before sliding in as a starting corner outfielder — and, by default, a playoff-caliber middle of the order bat — Kalish will have to add more power. Unless he develops the plate discipline of a JD Drew, Kalish will have to hit around 25 home runs annually in order to boost his batting average and slugging percentages into the range of a plus-corner outfielder.

That said, Kalish is very close to reaching these criteria and could be ready for a fulltime job sometime in 2011 or 2012.