FORT MYERS, Fla. – Where to start Jose Iglesias this year?
That matter is a subject of lively debate among Red Sox officials and player development staff. At the heart of the conversation is how to best prepare the 21-year-old for the possibility of being the Red Sox’ major league starting shortstop in 2012.
For the second straight year, Iglesias carried himself impressively in big league camp. He collected eight hits (all singles) in 25 at-bats, and though he walked just once, he ended up with a .320 average and .370 OBP. And in the field, he continued to flash the magic glove that was at the heart of the Sox’ decision to sign him after his defection from Cuba to a four-year, $8.25 million major league contract.
That followed a very solid first year in pro ball in 2010. As a member of the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, Iglesias hit .285 with a .315 OBP, .357 slugging mark and .672 OPS. Those numbers likely were depressed by a two-month stint on the DL and in Lowell due to a broken index finger.
While his progress as a hitter was short-circuited, Arnie Beyeler – who managed Iglesias in Portland last year, and who would (will?) manage him in Triple-A Pawtucket this year – said the shortstop learned a great deal about professionalization.
He noted that Iglesias not only used the winter to get stronger but also has learned how to pace himself for a full season. Beyeler said the shortstop would work himself to near-exhaustion during fielding drills in 2010, a reflection of his joy in an activity in which he commands attention. This year he has demonstrated a better understanding of how to prepare himself.
“He was going 100 mph from the day he got his foot down here last year. Come two, three weeks into the season, he needed some days off,” said Beyeler. “He’s more relaxed this year, looking at the big picture, instead of going out and trying to take 800 groundballs everyday.”
Clearly, there is more development to be done. The Sox want to see Iglesias – who has a line-drive stroke that yields lots of contact but little power – become more patient at the plate.
He is stronger this year than he was in 2010 (Sox players and coaches have noted that the sound of the ball off the bat has been different for him this spring than it was a year ago), and he has made strides in his approach, even as there is more work to be done.
“For him to jump into Double-A and do the job that he did last year, he’s just going to keep getting better and better,” Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said this spring. “He’s gotten stronger. His biggest obstacle is going to be pitch selection. He’s a guy that will expand the zone. When he takes that next step to really swinging at strikes, swinging at his pitch until he gets to two strikes, that’s when he’ll take off as a hitter. But he’s still learning.
“It’s not necessarily we’re looking for him to walk 80 times, but swing at strikes, swing at pitches you can handle. Don’t go up there and swing at a pitch eight inches inside or the pitch over your head. He’s shown glimpses of that in spring training this year and last year when he expands the zone early in the count and the at-bat is over with. It’s just a matter of discipline to the point where he’s not giving away at-bats early in the count on pitches he can’t handle.”
While plate discipline remains Iglesias’ developmental focal point, Beyeler said that there were two important things to keep in mind regarding that trait. First, the fact that Iglesias consistently makes contact even when expanding the zone offers an important foundation.
“You have something to work with there,” said Beyeler, “as opposed to a guy who swings and misses a lot.”
Moreover, Beyeler said that Iglesias was making major strides in his plate discipline in the early months of the Portland season. His broken finger represented a temporary derailment, and frustrated Iglesias.
“That made me sad,” Iglesias acknowledged. “I was doing well in the season, especially playing in the first two months in Portland, Maine, when it was freezing. After that, when the weather was perfect, I got hit by pitch and broke my hand for two months. That’s not fun. But I can’t control that.”
As for his defense, Iglesias remains very much the man with the golden glove, a dazzling defender whose range, hands, arms and flash echo other spectacular defenders such as Rey Ordonez. No one doubts that his glove is, and will be, elite.
“Phenomenal,” Beyeler said of the shortstop’s defense. “He can turn a game around.”
But there remain questions about the timeframe when his bat will progress to big league readiness.
And that, in turn, raises the question of where he should start in 2011. The Sox typically like to challenge their top prospects by promoting them aggressively and having them play against more advanced opponents.
And all things being equal, if Iglesias had followed a normal developmental progression to this point – if he was, say, a 21-year-old who had been drafted out of high school and, after three years of professional experience who had put up the numbers that he did in Double-A last year, the decision might be simplified. The Sox likely would want to throw him into the deep end, in no small part because team officials believe he has the makeup to deal with that challenge.
But that is not the developmental path that Iglesias has followed. Even with his two stints in the Arizona Fall League, thanks to last year’s broken finger, Iglesias only has about 400 professional at-bats. And for a player of that sort of experience, all things being equal (there’s that phrase again), the team would likely want him to open the year in Double-A.
The ideal path might be the one followed last year by Lars Anderson and Ryan Kalish. Anderson destroyed Eastern League pitching for a month, positioning him for a promotion to Triple-A before the year’s end. Kalish started a bit more slowly but then turned on the jets, resulting in his trip to Pawtucket by Memorial Day weekend.
The Sox would love to have Iglesias get his first taste of battering pitching at a familiar level (a clear signal of development that would offer context for any struggles over the rest of the year) and, in the process, force his way to Pawtucket.
There are good arguments in favor of a conservative developmental staff to make sure that he does not cut any corners.
“We all understand he could play defense in the big leagues tomorrow, but he’s still young,” said Beyeler. “He just needs to play. It’s tough to be patient with a kid like him who has so much ability. It will really be interesting to see how it plays out. The longer we can keep him down and let him develop, the better player he’s going to be when he gets up there. But he’s going to be a good player.”
So that is the theory of a conservative development path. But if Iglesias starts the year in Portland, the duration of his stay at that level has direct implications on his readiness for the major leagues in 2012.
What if, for instance, he has a ‘meh’ first two months, putting up similar numbers to the ones he had in 2010? Would the Sox then keep pushing him up the ladder even though his development wasn’t plainly apparent? Or, what if he had the type of season that Anderson had in 2009 or that Casey Kelly had in 2010?
Anderson and Kelly were the Sox’ top-ranked prospects when they started those seasons in Portland (just as Iglesias is now the Sox’ top-ranked prospect). Both were expected to push their way up the ladder during the season. Instead, both suffered from poor results (even though Kelly showed significant development in his pure stuff), and consequently ended up spending the whole year in Double-A.
If that happened to Iglesias, of course, the Sox would have to revise the timetable of when the shortstop would be ready to claim a spot in the big leagues. If, on the other hand, he were to open the year in Pawtucket, he could struggle while remaining at that level. If he eventually found his way out of his offensive slump to compete against advanced Triple-A pitchers, then he would still be in a position to factor into the Sox’ major league plans as an everyday shortstop for early 2012.
That helps to explain why the decision with Iglesias’ assignment is more complicated than it is for other minor leaguers. The Sox have been in a position that they typically try to avoid, namely, using spring training to evaluate where he stands in his development.
All of that said, while the dilemma is challenging in a vacuum, the Sox are in a good position to be making it. The current starting shortstop, Marco Scutaro, has a $6 million team option (with a $1.5 million buyout) for the 2012 season. Jed Lowrie appears more than capable of giving the Sox a solid option at the position as well.
As such, the Sox can do what is best for Iglesias’ development, rather than facing a position where they would be high and dry if the prospect is not yet ready for Opening Day in 2012.
“If he goes down there and gets 400, 500 at-bats, puts up good numbers, handles the pitchers, plays good defense, he’s going to be ready for next year,” said Scutaro, who took Iglesias under his wing in spring training in 2010 and then worked out with him this winter. “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the Red Sox want to make sure he’s ready for his level, so let’s see what happens.
“He’s going the right way. He’s willing to listen. He’s willing to learn. He’s on the right track. I think he’s going to be something special.”
Ultimately, that outcome is more important than the timeframe. But it remains to be seen how the Sox approach the coming year in order to further the prospect’s development.
For his part, Iglesias suggests that his goal is simply to be in the majors when the time is right. His focus is to continue his improvement, regardless of level. If he does that, then everything else will follow.
“I’m focused on what I have to do, and what exactly I want. Everything is coming,” said Iglesias. “My goal is to play in the big leagues with this team. When you go to the field and play 100 percent, when you try to get better every single day, good things happen to you.”