As new general manager Ben Cherington begins restructuring the Red Sox for the future, he has some rookie options he can look to in order to fill in the 2012 roster. While there may not be an instant All-Star, a Rookie of the Year candidate or even an immediate starter among those prospects, there are certainly players who could make an impact with the big-league club early in the season, others who could serve as solid emergency depth options in case of injury, and still others who have the potential to make contributions later in the season.
As the offseason begins, and before trade season heats up, here’s a breakdown of those options.
POTENTIAL IMPACT ROOKIES
Ryan Lavarnway -- One difficult decision for Cherington will be whether to let Jason Varitek walk in free agency, and then whether to pencil in Lavarnway as the backup backstop. While many scouts believe that Lavarnway is not ready defensively at this stage, most opine that he could be an average-to-better offensive player right out of the gate in 2012. There’s even some discussion as to whether he may be a successor to David Ortiz as the club’s primary designated hitter. Ultimately, Lavarnway’s role is likely to be determined by what Cherington decides to do with Varitek and Ortiz. In an ideal world, Boston would allow Lavarnway to get as many reps in with the big-league pitchers in spring training as possible, bring in an experienced defensive-minded catcher as a temporary backup, and allow Lavarnway to spend the first couple of months of the 2012 season in Triple-A Pawtucket with an eye toward a permanent promotion in June.
Ryan Kalish -- Kalish will not technically be a rookie in 2012, as he logged 163 at-bats with the big club in 2010 -- 33 more than the rookie eligibility limit. However, he’s still just 23 and he didn’t see any major league time (or much minor league time, for that matter) in 2011 due to neck and back injuries, so for practical purposes he’s essentially still a rookie. By most accounts, the Red Sox plan to acquire a right-handed-hitting right fielder this offseason, which would likely leave Kalish in a battle with Josh Reddick for the fourth outfielder/platoon role. If Kalish can get back to his previous form, he still projects as an everyday outfielder down the line, but he may need to prove himself in Pawtucket for a couple of months before he gets that chance with Boston.
Felix Doubront -- The 24-year-old Venezuelan left-hander is out of options heading into the 2012 season, meaning he’ll almost certainly break camp with Boston. The big question, however, will be what role Doubront will fill. He may be given a shot to open the season as the club’s fifth starter, but the more likely scenario has Doubront being used in a long reliever role out of the gate, while remaining stretched out to serve as a spot starter when the need arises. The key for Doubront will be reporting to camp in shape and staying off the disabled list. If he can do that, Doubront could serve as a valuable back-of-the-rotation starter over the long term.
Kyle Weiland -- Weiland is likely to begin the 2012 campaign as Pawtucket’s opening-day starter, serving as emergency rotation depth for the major-league club. Over the long haul, Weiland profiles better as a seventh-inning reliever type, and he could end the 2012 season in a middle-to-late-inning relief role with Boston. His fastball should play up better in shorter bursts, and he may work better as a two-pitch pitcher if he focuses on honing the control of his curveball while working his fringe changeup out of his arsenal.
Junichi Tazawa -- Returning from April 2010 Tommy John surgery, Tazawa had an up-and-down season in 2011. After reaching Boston in his first professional season in 2009 then missing all of 2010, the Japanese righty began the 2011 campaign in late May as a starter with High-A Salem. He began that stint with two terrible starts, and followed that up with four decent starts before receiving a bump up to Double-A Portland. He pitched poorly in his first appearance with the Sea Dogs, but then strung together seven solid outings before getting another bump to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he primarily worked as a one- to two-inning reliever, posting a 2.51 ERA in eight appearances. He made three appearances with Boston in September, looking somewhat worn out as the season came to a close. He projects to start the 2012 season in the Pawtucket bullpen, but could be one of the first relievers to get the call to Boston. There’s also the opportunity for Tazawa to open the season as starting depth in Pawtucket, but given Boston’s history, the club would likely limit him to somewhere in the 100-inning range for the season.
Alex Wilson -- Wilson was named the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2011 after going 10-4 with a 3.11 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 123 strikeouts in 133 innings between stops in Portland and Pawtucket. He’ll be given a long look in spring training, and could be an option as an impact arm out of Boston’s bullpen when midseason rolls around. While he has the potential to be a late-inning reliever in the future, he’ll likely open 2012 as Pawtucket’s No. 2 starter.
J.C. Linares -- The 27-year-old Cuban outfielder thoroughly impressed during his time with the Red Sox in 2011 spring training, but he missed most of the season after tearing ligaments in his ankle in early May. He’s a dark horse to make the 2012 major league roster, but more than likely will open the season as Pawtucket’s starting left fielder.
Lars Anderson -- Once considered the top prospect in the system, Anderson has been inconsistent and mostly mediocre since 2009. He may be better suited for another organization, thus could be included in trade discussions this offseason. If he’s still with the club in 2012, he’d likely only see major league time if Adrian Gonzalez lands on the disabled list.
Michael Bowden -- Another pitcher who is out of options, Bowden will have to compete for a spot at the back end of Boston’s bullpen in spring training. If he doesn’t earn a spot, he’d need to be designated for assignment, in which case he’d either be claimed by another team off waivers or outrighted to Pawtucket.
Luis Exposito -- Exposito sits behind Lavarnway on the organization’s depth chart at catcher. A solid defensive backstop who has been inconsistent offensively over his minor league career, Exposito has no major league experience to this point, but has the potential to become a reliable big league backup. His chances to get major league playing time in 2012 are helped by the fact that he’s already on the club’s 40-man roster.
Che-Hsuan Lin -- Lin will likely be added to Boston’s 40-man roster on Nov. 20 to protect him from selection in December's Rule 5 draft. An outstanding defensive center fielder with above-average speed and excellent plate discipline, Lin is a solid option for emergency depth in the outfield. He would get more of a look as a potential starting option if he added some power, which has essentially been a non-existent part of his game to this point.
Josh Fields -- Acquired from Seattle as part of the Erik Bedard trade, the 26-year-old righty showed a major-league-caliber fastball and a decent curveball during his time with Portland in 2011. He should begin 2012 in Pawtucket’s bullpen, serving as another reliever that the Sox could call upon when the inevitable pitching need arises.
POTENTIAL LATE-SEASON CALL-UPS
Jose Iglesias -- The defensive wizard could use at least another half year of seasoning in Triple-A to work on developing his plate approach. But he could get called up for good as early as midseason, at which point he’d just need to learn to improve his offensive skills on the job. If Boston opts to bring Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles back for 2012, and they remain healthy, Iglesias may not see much action until September.
Will Middlebrooks -- The 23-year-old third baseman is in a similar situation as Iglesias. He probably needs at least another half season in Pawtucket, and ideally another full season to refine his plate discipline. That being said, he’s an excellent defensive player with solid power who projects as the third baseman of the future. Absent serving as an injury fill-in, he’s probably an August or September call-up.
Oscar Tejeda -- The 21-year-old Dominican second baseman had a poor season with Portland in 2011, but he’s still very young for his level and possesses projectable tools. If he makes advancements like he did in 2010, he’ll probably be a September call-up in 2012.
Cesar Cabral -- Cabral is a 22-year-old Dominican reliever with a live arm. If he’s still with the Red Sox in 2012 (he almost stuck with two different clubs as a Rule 5 pick this past spring), the left-hander could get a late-season shot with the big club.
Alex Hassan -- A longer shot to see major league action in 2012, the 23-year-old outfielder has posted a .293/.396/.457 line in three minor league seasons. He may be tested at Triple-A, but if he excels there, the Massachusetts native could get a late-season shot with Boston.
Jeremy Hazelbaker -- If Boston needs a Joey Gathright-type pinch runner when September rolls around, Hazelbaker is the best option in the system, having stolen 121 bases in 288 career minor league games. He also has some pop, so he’s a candidate to serve as a fourth outfielder at the big-league level as early as 2013.