As the Red Sox weigh their options for the winter -- signing Jason Bay long-term, for example, or trading prospects for Adrian Gonzalez or Roy Halladay -- they'll do so with an eye on the farm system that has pumped out as much talent as any over the last five years or so.
Jon Lester already is one of the best pitchers in the major leagues, and Clay Buchholz is poised to join him. Jonathan Papelbon is one of the best relief pitchers in the major leagues, and Daniel Bard is poised to join him. Dustin Pedroia is one of the best middle infielders in the major leagues, and Jed Lowrie -- well, Lowrie probably needs to stay healthy for a full season first.
But the fact remains that the Red Sox will make all of their decisions with their farm system in mind -- and that means it's worth looking ahead at when some of those prospects might make their debuts at Fenway Park:
Lars Anderson, 1B
Who he is: If you haven't heard of Anderson, you were living under a rock a year ago at this time. If you haven't given up on Anderson, you're a rare breed among Red Sox fans. The first baseman saw his numbers plummet across the board in his first season : He hit .233 and slugged just .345, and given the publicity he received during the Mark Teixeira saga, most Red Sox fans wrote him off as yet another bust.
When he'll get to Boston: Midseason call-up, 2011.
Why he matters: His age, first and foremost -- he only turned 22 after the minor-league season ended, and that means he's still got plenty of room to grow. Heck, it's worth comparing him with the first baseman after whom the Red Sox now seem to lust and what he did as a 21-year-old playing in Double-A three years after he first was drafted:
* Anderson: .233 batting, .328 on-base, .345 slugging
* Gonzalez: .269 batting, .327 on-base, .365 slugging
A year later, Gonzalez hit .304/.364/.457 as a 22-year-old at Triple-A Oklahoma and made his first cameo in the major leagues. The Red Sox almost certainly will start Anderson back in Double-A and give him a chance to show last season was the type of fluke his career numbers make it seem it was.
Jose Iglesias, SS
Who he is: Seeing as how he's already being touted as the solution to the Red Sox revolving door at shortstop, it's important to remember he's not yet 20 years old. Still, though, his glove reportedly already is major-league ready, and if Texas' 21-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus is named Rookie of the Year in the coming days, some will jump to the conclusion that Iglesias might only be a year or so away from the Red Sox roster.
Again, though, it's worth looking closer at the comparison. Andrus was 16 years old when he made his professional debut, hitting .295 and OBP'ing .377 for the Atlanta Braves' Rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League. He was 19 years old when he played a full season at Double-A Frisco in the Rangers' organization. Iglesias, on the other hand, will be 20 years old when he makes his professional debut -- his Arizona Fall League tenure aside -- and still needs to take the minor leagues level-by-level.
A more apt comparison might be Orlando Cabrera, who made his pro debut in the Expos' system as a 19-year-old in 1994 and got his first cup of coffee in the major leagues as a 22-year-old in 1997.
When he'll get to Boston: Opening Day, 2012. (The Red Sox signed him to a major-league contract -- and that means he only can be optioned to the minor leagues three times -- in 2010, 2011 and 2012.)
Why he matters: It's not as if the Red Sox are eager in any way to trade away Jed Lowrie. His injury history has torpedoed his value, and the Red Sox still believe Lowrie can be their everyday shortstop. But the presence of Iglesias deep in the farm system means the Red Sox can think short-term at the position -- insert obligatory Marco Scutaro reference here -- with an eye on Iglesias taking over at the position in three or four years.
Ryan Kalish, OF
Who he is: He's the next big name to play his way onto the radar of casual Red Sox fans. After a miserable start at Double-A Portland, Kalish OPS'ed .855 in July, .867 in August and 1.280 in 26 at-bats in September. (He hit three home runs in the final week of the season.)
He even stole a team-best 14 bases and was caught just three times, and he split time defensively between center field and left field.
(With a little bit of luck there should be a Q&A with Kalish in this space in the next week.)
When he'll get to Boston: Opening Day, 2011.
Why he matters: Kalish and Josh Reddick -- see below -- both impact how the Red Sox will approach their negotiations with Jason Bay. The negotiations thus far have been quiet, but it's safe to assume that the Red Sox are more reluctant to push the envelope in terms of years than in terms of dollars. The 31-year-old Bay already is a subpar defensive left fielder, and the presence of Kalish and Reddick in the system means the Red Sox might view Bay as the heir to David Ortiz as their designated hitter. If that's something that Bay can't accept, he's probably going to sign elsewhere.
Kalish, in fact, has a chance to become an above-average defensive center fielder -- and he could prompt Jacoby Ellsbury to follow the Carl Crawford career track, moving to left field to give the Red Sox an exceptional defensive outfield.
Casey Kelly, P
Who he is: One of the top pitching prospects in the game, Kelly had a 1.12 ERA in nine starts at Single-A Greenville and a 3.09 ERA in eight starts after a promotion to Single-A Salem. Presuming the Red Sox convince him his future is as a starting pitcher, he'll start next season at Double-A Portland and climb the ladder as quickly as his results will let him.
But he's still just 20 years old, and that means he'll need a little bit of time to let his repertoire take shape. He throws a fastball around 92 miles per hour -- and he has room to grow -- with a hard curveball, a potential plus pitch, and a changeup.
When he'll get to Boston: Midseason call-up, 2011.
Why he matters: Simply put, he's the best prospect in the Red Sox system, and he's going to have to be part of any deal the Red Sox make for Gonzalez or Halladay or Felix Hernandez -- especially if the Red Sox make Clay Buchholz off-limits. If the Red Sox see him as a future star in the mold of Jon Lester, they might not be willing to make the type of impact trade some want them to make.
Josh Reddick, OF
Who he is: Reddick made his major-league debut last season -- he even hit a couple of home runs -- but what's most important was the way he played in the minor leagues. He went into last season with an eye on improving his approach at the plate and working more walks, and that's just what he did. He walked just 34 times in more than 500 plate appearances in 2008, and he walked 36 times in fewer than 400 plate appearances in 2009.
His batting average and slugging percentage both suffered, but for a player with Reddick's ability, it might just be a step back that eventually yields two or three giant steps forward.
When he'll get to Boston: Been there, done that.
Why he matters: He'll start next season at Triple-A Pawtucket no matter what happens with Bay. It's almost unfathomable that the Red Sox would be satisfied with replacing a middle-of-the-order bat with a 23-year-old rookie. (When Dustin Pedroia took over full-time at second base three seasons ago, don't forget, he was replacing Mark Loretta and didn't need to do much more than play solid defense and hit the ball every once in a while.)
But his presence and the way the Red Sox feel about him will impact the Bay negotiations. Not only would he likely relegate Bay to designated-hitter duties if he emerged as a potential star, but he and Kalish also give the Red Sox reason to believe that a stopgap solution of Bobby Abreu or Mike Cameron or Josh Willingham with an eye on a younger player taking over in 2011 might be a better more than paying Bay $15 million over the next four or five seasons.
Ryan Westmoreland, OF
Who he is: If he can stop running into walls and breaking his collarbone -- word from the ProJo is that he's doing just fine -- the Rhode Island native likely will open next season at Single-A Greenville and continue his march toward the major leagues. He hit .296 and OBP'ed .401 in his pro debut a year ago, walking 38 times in fewer than 300 plate appearances and ranking fourth in the New York-Penn League in OPS (.885).
When he'll get to Boston: Midseason call-up, 2013.
Why he matters: Like Kelly, at this point, he's a key chip in any trade for an impact bat like Gonzalez or arm like Hernandez. He's essentially irrelevant in any discussions about the future makeup of the Red Sox roster because his arrival is so far off -- it took Grady Sizemore, a frequent basis of comparison for Westmoreland, four years to reach the major leagues, and he didn't miss time with injuries the way Westmoreland has.
But his raw skills have to be tantalizing for teams like the Blue Jays or the Padres. With his power potential -- he slugged .484 for the Spinners this season, including seven home runs -- his upside is higher than that of Jacoby Ellsbury. You'd better believe his name is coming up in trade discussions, and his availability might determine what sort of player the Red Sox can acquire in any trade.