You don’t have to be a Red Sox fan to have your heart go out to Ryan Kalish.

After an exciting 2010 debut in which he showcased his potential, his flaws and his energy all at once, many assumed Kalish would start 2011 as the team’s left fielder. Then came the Carl Crawford signing, and a minor league assignment for our much-maligned protagonist.

Injury robbed him of much of his 2011 campaign, and clearly affected him for much 2012 as well. While he received playing time after the last glimmer of hope had been drained from the 2012 Red Sox, he didn’t look right, and that was reflected in his brutal stat line as well: a .229/.272/.260 mess with three steals and unremarkable defense in the outfield.

Ryan Kalish with an impressive display of shoulder mobility. Photo by Kelly O'Connor,

Ryan Kalish with an impressive display of shoulder mobility. Photo by Kelly O’Connor,

With the recent news that Kalish will miss all of Spring Training, and likely a good chunk of the season, thanks to another surgery — this time on his right shoulder — it appears that his usefulness to the 2013 Red Sox will be minimal as well. Thought by many to be the left-handed compliment to Jonny Gomes platoon in left field, or at least the first outfielder called up from AAA, Kalish is now left on the outside looking in once again. Instead, we get more Ryan Sweeney.

If we’re being honest about Kalish’s odds of becoming an impact major leaguer now, they are slim. He’s lost a ton of development time over the past two years, and while he was exciting and full of promise in 2010, he had plenty of work left to do then as well. We have not seen plus power or a plus hit tool in two years. We have not seen the reckless, exciting center field defense from Kalish in two years. We haven’t seen aggressive but successful base running from Kalish in two years.

We haven’t seen Ryan Kalish – future right field fixture – in two years.

The rest of this post will not be about Kalish and his long road to recovery. He is still only 24 (to be 25 in March), and to insinuate he doesn’t have a career ahead of him is premature. Kalish was incredibly fun to watch and, from all accounts, seems like a genuinely good person, so I wish him all the best.

But if we can learn anything from his sad series of injuries, it should be this: there is no such thing as prospect redundancy, or prospect logjams, or having “too many prospects.” And that’s because prospect attrition is a very real thing.

You don’t have to be invested in the minor leagues or a wannabe scout to understand this principle: you just have to have watched the Red Sox over the past few years. Depth – or the lack there of — has been a crippling factor to the last several iterations of our hometown team. It’s why you’re familiar with names like Nick Green, Marlon Byrd, Aaron Cook and Eric Patterson. It’s why you were almost familiar with Bruce Chen. It’s why Marco Scutaro was given away last year. In some ways, it’s why John Lackey, Carl Crawford and other poor free agent contracts were dolled out with frequency.

For all the talk of Theo’s “player development machine,” and for all the talent it produced in the mid-2000s, the Red Sox have not had an elite system for the better part of the past half-decade. Boston is just now rejoining those ranks, and because of that, you’re going to hear about “prospect gluts,” or “prospect redundancies,” or “blocked players.”

And you shouldn’t believe any of it, because the majority of these prospects – the one that I hype and others like me hype and the media hypes and the Red Sox organization itself hypes – will not pan out.

As Alex Speier lays out here, better than I possibly could, as recently as 2010, the Red Sox had what looked to be a potential logjam in the outfield. With Jacoby Ellsbury still entrenching himself in the majors and J.D. Drew signed through 2011, the Red Sox had Ryan Westmoreland, Kalish and Josh Reddick coming up through the season.

How does that potential logjam look now?

Yes, what happened to Westmoreland is sad and unpredictable, and Kalish has run into more than his fair share of injuries. But as it stands today, there’s a good chance that the only of three “future stars” who will have even a meaningful MLB career is Reddick, and he’s the only one no longer in the Red Sox organization.

Let’s try a more current example. You will hear, at some point this season, about how the Red Sox have too many third base prospects. Will Middlebrooks looks to be an above average player and is rightfully entrenched at third base. Xander Bogaerts may have to move off of shortstop, and if he does, third base is likely his best position. The fifth or sixth best prospect in the Red Sox organization is Garin Cecchini: you guessed it, a third baseman.

So what should we do? Trade Middlebrooks or Cecchini? Shift Bogaerts to the outfield or first base?

Nope. What we should do is nothing, because odds are at least one of the three players I just mentioned will fail.

The next time you read a scouting report for a hot prospect, keep count of how many times you read the words “if” or “should” or “might” or, perhaps more than the rest combined, “projects.” That’s because prospect reports are just as much about forecasting as they are about examining current talent levels, and rightfully so.

That makes them a remarkably inexact science, though, and the flaws that are cited in a player’s write up are more often than not ignored in favor of the promise described in adjacent words.

We can stay with the third base example to better illustrate this point. Middlebrooks will be an above average minor leaguer if he can make adjustments at the major league level and keep his strikeout rates tolerable. Bogaerts will be a superstar if he can hit more advanced pitching and stay at a premium defensive position. Cecchini figures to be a solid player if his hit tool plays up enough for his average power to be acceptable.

Those are all massive ifs, and if we quell our optimism, we can see it’s incredibly unlikely all three will reach their full potential.

This is even truer with pitchers, where attrition rates are even higher. Ever heard of TINSTAAPP? It stands for “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect,” and while it’s often used in a sarcastic manner, there’s some wisdom behind the acronym.

Remember surefire No. 3 starter Michael Bowden? Remember the Jon Lester clone we gave away in Nick Hagadone? Remember the future ace we drafted a few years back in Anthony Ranaudo? The pain we felt when we dealt Casey Kelly? Promising young arm
Stolmy Pimentel? Craig Hansen, anyone?

Pitchers break. They lose control (cough Daniel Bard cough). They don’t develop those secondary offerings we project they will, or that command we think they’ll grow into never materializes, or they never regain that zip on their fastball after an injury. Maybe they can’t handle the mental aspects of the game, or maybe they just stop working hard. For every good pitching prospect you read about, two more won’t make it.

The odds, then, dictate that at least one of Matt Barnes, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa won’t turn into a viable major league starter. Scarily, those odds might actually sway towards two of them not turning into good major league starters. It’s a scary proposition, and it’s why durable aces like Justin Verlander or C.C. Sabathia or Roy Halladay are arguably the most valuable commodities in the game.

As much as we fawn over them and dream of better days to come and want the nucleus of the Next Great Red Sox team to magically appear in front of us, many of Boston’s prospects will not pan out. It’s sad, and we can hope we get lucky and that most do, but if you assume, say, an (mostly) all-homegrown lineup that looks like this in 2015:

Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Clay Buchholz
Dustin Pedroia, 2B Matt Barnes
Xander Bogaerts, SS Ruby De La Rosa
David Ortiz, DH Allen Webster
Will Middlebrooks, 3B Felix Doubront
Ryan Kalish/Bryce Brentz, LF
Shane Victorino, RF Drake Britton
Ryan Lavarnway, 1B Junichi Tazawa
Blake Swihart, C Daniel Bard

You’re probably asking to be disappointed.

So remember this as you wish Kalish well in his recovery. There are no such things are surefire prospects, prospect gluts or prospect redundancies, because there are no guarantees in baseball who will be healthy from one pitch to the next.

In fact, by the time Kalish returns in June or July, we could be clamoring for outfield help anyway. Hopefully next time, he’ll be able to provide it.