The Red Sox are currently conducting their annual Rookie Development Program. The program typically includes some of the top prospects in the organization who the club believes could make their big-league debuts in a 12- to 18-month timeframe. Over the course of two weeks, the Sox will work to prepare the group of prospects for a potential call-up, giving the group an opportunity to work with members of the major-league coaching staff, to work on strength and conditioning as well as fundamentals, and a chance to become familiar with such details as the layout of the clubhouse at Fenway Park.
Over the duration of the program, WEEI.com will profile some of the prospects taking part in the Rookie Development Program. The series starts today with a look at Jose Iglesias, the Cuban shortstop whom the Sox signed last summer.
The financial commitment bordered on stunning.
The baseball world reacted with some shock when word circulated this summer that the Red Sox had signing Jose Iglesias to a four-year, $8.25 million major-league contract this past summer. To this day, several clubs remain puzzled by the deal.
The surprise derives from a belief that no one else planned on making a bid of nearly that amount for the shortstop. But the Sox make few apologies for the investment in a player who they hope might help them to stabilize a position that has featured constant turnover.
Iglesias, as an international free agent, received a larger signing bonus ($6.25 million) and more money than did Tim Beckham, the high-school shortstop who was selected by the Rays with the top overall pick in the 2008 draft and signed as an 18-year-old for $6.15 million. But the Sox were confident in the value placed on the Cuban shortstop based on the extensive scouting effort organized by Vice-President/International Scouting Craig Shipley.
Shipley and others in the international scouting department got several looks at Iglesias. Assistant GM Ben Cherington, Assistant to the General Manager Allard Baird and members of the domestic amateur scouting staff also scouted him on multiple occasions before the player signed. The conclusion that Iglesias had a good chance to be an above-average shortstop justified the investment in the eyes of his club.
“We were able to get a lot of looks, and Ship did a very good job getting underneath, getting to know this kid’s makeup, his desire, what we feel is a very good makeup for baseball,” Assistant GM Ben Cherington explained early this offseason. “Ultimately, [Shipley] and we felt that he’s at least an above average shortstop with a chance to be more than that.
“He had the attributes to be able to hit. He had the swing path and basic pitch recognition skills to hit. The sample in Cuba was relatively small, but there were signs that he performed against pretty good competition, relative to his age.
“Putting those things together with what we knew about his pretty good makeup, we felt that he represented a unique opportunity for us to acquire a player at a premium position without giving up talent, without giving up a draft pick. Once you identify that opportunity, obviously it’s a free-agent market, and so the bonus gets driven because of that.
“I think it’s difficult to compare him to a drafted player because the signing market is so different, but ultimately after a lot of work led by Ship, we felt that he was an everyday major-league shortstop with a chance to perform offensively at a level that made him pretty unique to go along with the defense.”
That defense, of course, is Iglesias’ hallmark. No one doubts that he has the glove of a major leaguer. His work in the field was compared by several international scouts from different organizations to that of three-time Gold Glove winner Rey Ordonez, a dazzling defender who became one of the first players to defect from Cuba in order to sign with a Major League team.
Of course, as one of those evaluators noted, “The question is whether [Iglesias] will hit like Ordonez.” The retired shortstop was a career .246/.289/.310/.600 hitter with just 12 homers in parts of nine big-league seasons.
That said, others view Iglesias as having the ceiling of an Orlando Cabrera-type player, an aggressive hitter who can drive the ball to the gaps and who plays with a ton of energy on the field. More likely, the 19-year-old projects as somewhere in between those two views.
“We all know he signed for a lot of money. The question is if he’s worth it,” said Sox reliever Dustin Richardson, who played with Iglesias in the Arizona Fall League, said near the end of the AFL season. “There’s no doubt that, defensively, he’s big-league ready, and ready to play shortstop in Boston. The question is with the stick. I think for the most part [in Arizona], he’s held his own at the plate. He’s not hitting for power, but he’s scrappy. He gets his hits.”
Overall, the returns on Iglesias’ performance as one of the younger players in the Fall Instructional League and Arizona Fall League were solid. In 18 games, he hit .275 with a .324 OBP, .420 slugging mark and .745 OPS. If Iglesias develops into an above-average starting shortstop for a few seasons, he will end up being a relative bargain.
Some talent evaluators – both with the Sox and other clubs – believe that he eventually could produce a big-league stat line similar to the one he forged in the AFL. According to that view, Iglesias could develop into a .260 or .270 hitter in the majors with enough power to generate 10-15 homers a year and an OPS in perhaps the mid-.700s. (By way of reference, the average AL shortstop in 2009 hit .274/.329/.391/.719.)
If Iglesias does that in tandem with well above-average defense, he would represent a potentially very useful everyday player. For now, the Sox are reserving judgment about where he will start his 2010 campaign until they have a chance to evaluate him in spring training. But the club is pleased with the initial strides he has made.
“He really did well by the end [of the AFL season]. As he learned some of the norms of professional baseball in the United States, he really seemed to thrive,” farm director Mike Hazen said earlier this offseason. “We don’t like to put a ton of stock into spring training. I think this is one player we’re going to have to keep our evaluation mind open. … Because of our limited background from a playing games standpoint, we’re going to have to watch him quite a bit.”
The idea of a major-league ETA of 2012 for Iglesias has been used liberally. The Sox’ signing of Marco Scutaro to a two-year deal (with both a team and player option for the 2012 season) would seem to provide the Sox with a two-year placeholder at shortstop.
That said, the Sox have no interest in rushing Iglesias’ development simply for the sake of ensuring that he is ready by the time that Scutaro’s guaranteed years are up. While there is a believe that Iglesias could be big-league ready within the next couple of years, the team is also mindful that development can be unpredictable, and that the process of becoming ready for the big leagues rarely goes without hitches.
In that light, the team option on Scutaro for 2012 could actually be quite valuable should Iglesias – who seems most likely to begin the season in High A Salem or Double A Portland – need more seasoning. The team can commit publicly to only one notion surrounding Iglesias’ big-league timetable. As evidenced by the fact that he signed a major-league contract, the Sox – who have four options on the 19-year-old – are confident that he will be ready to assume a permanent major-league role by 2014.
“We don’t know where he’s going to start [in 2010],” Cherington said early this offseason. “But we feel pretty confident that he’ll be able to start at a high enough level where the four option years are plenty for him to follow a reasonable development path and, if he performs, to get to the big leagues in those four years and not feel that he’s rushed.”
Already, Iglesias has shown an impressive ability to handle the transition to the professionalization in the U.S., a process that has sometimes been challenging for players coming from Cuba. He has impressed team officials with his commitment to learning the English language, and his on- and off-field aptitude.
He’s demonstrated a commitment to learning about the norms of the game and about his new country of residence. GM Theo Epstein noted at the Hot Stove Cool Music roundtable on Saturday that Iglesias has taken to the study of American history to have a better understanding of his new culture.
The team will also have Alex Ochoa, a special assignment coach, available to serve as a mentor to ease Iglesias’ transition to professional ball. To date, at least, the team has had few qualms with the way in which he has made himself comfortable in his new environment.
“I think this guy, more than anyone else, is a little more seasoned than your average new 19-year-old player,” said Hazen. “The kid’s pretty mature. He has a pretty good grasp of English. He went out to the AFL. He had a few little hiccups, but he didn’t really miss a beat. He kept right up with that level of competition. He knows how to work.”
Iglesias showed that he is a quick learner in more ways than one. In his first game in the Arizona Fall League, he thrust open his arms in triumph and engaged in an exuberant tour of the bases after hitting a home run – a common practice in Cuba, an unwelcome one in the U.S. In his next at-bat, he got drilled by a pitch.
Several weeks later, Iglesias again went deep with his second (and final) homer of the AFL. He sprinted around the bases, head down.
Though Iglesias had his showboat moment, however, that should not be confused for a lack of respect for the game. To the contrary, the 19-year-old exhibited a rare passion for baseball during the AFL that ultimately endeared him to teammates.
“This kid plays hard. He not only runs out balls every time, but he runs to his position hard from the dugout,” said Richardson. “He plays the game hard and with passion, more than I’ve seen in most players. What you see in this kid is rare.”