FORT MYERS -- One of the most intriguing players to watch in Red Sox spring training this year will have virtually no shot at starting the season in the major leagues.
When Marco Scutaro signed to be the Red Sox shortstop after the 2009 season, few thought he would remain in possession of that job title by 2012. He seemed like a placeholder – a bridge, in the infamous parlance of that offseason – who would offer the Sox stability at shortstop in 2010 and 2011 until highly touted prospect Jose Iglesias was ready to lay claim to the position in 2012.
At that time, the player and team options for 2012 that were built into Scutaro’s contract seemed like little more than a formality. Excitement already was building around Iglesias, a player whose reputation for defensive wizardry preceded him when the Sox signed him to a four-year, $8.25 million deal as a 19-year-old out of Cuba in 2009.
It’s 2012 and Iglesias isn’t part of the season-opening shortstop conversation – despite the fact that the Sox traded Scutaro after exercising the team option it held on his contract. Time and again, the Sox have discussed their expectation that Mike Aviles and Nick Punto have the potential to replicate Scutaro’s production at shortstop.
As for Iglesias? Not yet.
“Jose Iglesias is a guy who we think really highly of,” Sox GM Ben Cherington said earlier this month. “He may need a little bit more time in Triple-A -- we’ll see how he looks in spring training -- but he’s certainly capable of being a really good major league shortstop for years to come.”
That assessment raises a few questions.
What happened to the idea that he could be the team’s shortstop by 2012? If Iglesias is not major league ready for the start of 2012, then when will he be? And, after struggling through a statistically horrific season at the plate in 2011, what does the future hold for the 22-year-old defensive dynamo?
AN UNCERTAIN DEVELOPMENT PATH
When the Red Sox signed Iglesias to his major league contract in 2009, opinion in the baseball industry was divided.
Everyone agreed that Iglesias was an incredible defensive shortstop. But some teams wondered about his offense, suggesting that he might be the second coming of Rey Ordonez, the Cuban who won three Gold Gloves in the late-1990s but whose career OPS of .600 and OPS+ of 59 are the lowest of any major league player in the last 20 years (min. 3,000 at-bats).
Other teams had a more optimistic view on his offensive skills, suggesting that he had enough strength and bat speed to hit eight to 10 homers and maintain a batting average in the mid- to high-.200s. If he had the bat to be a league-average shortstop – a standard that in the AL in 2011 required a player to hit .266 with a .321 OBP, .386 slugging mark and .708 OPS – then because of his outrageous defense, he would be a well above-average starting shortstop in the majors.
The Sox were in the latter camp almost from the first time that they had the opportunity to work out Iglesias at their academy in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2009. He saw a 90 mph fastball and offered a glimpse of what the Sox came to characterize as sneaky strength and power.
“His first at-bat that we saw him at our complex, he crushed a ball – absolutely crushed it. It was a no-doubter right off the bat,” said Sox director of international scouting Eddie Romero. “That was unexpected, it was something surprising, it was impressive. Right off the bat, off live pitching, that immediately kind of turned our heads.”
He built upon that favorable impression throughout an extensive scouting process before signing his deal in September of 2009. But, after a solid performance in brief stints in the Arizona Fall League (a .275 average, .324 OBP, .420 slugging mark and .745 OPS) in 2009 and big league spring training (4-for-12 with a homer) at the start of 2010, the Sox faced a dilemma: What was the right level for Iglesias?
The Sox did not have any significant experience with young signees from Cuba. And the wildly inconsistent quality of pitching in Cuba’s highest league, along with favorable hitter’s parks that lend themselves to video game offensive numbers, have made it difficult to equate the level of play in Cuba with that in any professional level -- Low-A? High-A? Double-A? -- in the minor leagues. That being the case, the Sox were admittedly engaged in an imperfect science as they tried to figure out the right level for Iglesias.
The Sox saw a player with terrific hand-eye coordination (the gift that underlies his glove work) and better-than-expected bat speed, and someone who had always enjoyed success at the highest levels of competition. Iglesias had played in Cuba’s top league as a 17-year-old. Moreover, the organization typically likes to err on the side of pushing players to face advanced competition at younger ages.
“In general, we like being able to challenge players and give players a chance to face some adversity and be challenged by situations and learn from them,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “For us, it is the way that we’ve operated recently. It’s something that we’ve felt strongly about, trying to find out what we have in younger players.”
Given that approach, the team assigned Iglesias to Double-A Portland in 2010. As a 20-year-old, he delivered a solid offensive performance. He didn’t show much power (13 extra-base hits in 236 plate appearances) and showed limited patience (eight walks), but his ability to get the bat on the ball with a line drive stroke allowed him to hit .285 with a .315 OBP and .672 OPS in Double-A. (Worth noting: Those numbers compared favorably to Ordonez’s first half-season in Double-A, when as a 23-year-old, he hit .262 with a .279 OBP and .630 OPS.)
However, Iglesias lost a couple months of the season after suffering a broken finger when hit by a pitch. In his first pro season, he was limited to just 70 games (57 in Portland and 13 while on a minor league rehab assignment in Lowell) and 284 plate appearances.
Once again, that created a dilemma for the Sox as they thought about where to assign the shortstop last year. He needed at-bats in order to learn his strengths as a hitter, which pitches he could start to drive and which ones he needed to lay off.
During spring training in 2011 (when Iglesias had a good camp, hitting .320 in 25 at-bats but without any walks or extra-base hits), the team wrestled with whether to have him open the year in Double-A or Triple-A.
Once again, the team decided to go the aggressive route. Mindful that they might want Iglesias to be the team’s everyday shortstop by the start of 2012, the team decided to see if he could hold his own in Pawtucket in 2011, thus positioning himself to secure a spot in the major leagues by the time the following season rolled around.
The answer was an emphatic no.
THE STRUGGLE OF 2011
There were 105 hitters who had at least 300 plate appearances in the International League last year. Of those, Iglesias ranked dead last in slugging percentage (.269) and OPS (.554), was tied for 92nd in batting average (.235) and 95th in OBP (.285). Statistically, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that he was overmatched by the level. Those who made the Ordonez comparisons had significant ammunition, given that as a 24-year-old in Triple-A, Ordonez (.214/.261/.294/.554) had a similar line to the .235/.285/.269/.554 posted by Iglesias as a 20-year-old in Triple-A.
It was difficult to sugarcoat such a performance. That said, there are some factors to consider in assessing Iglesias’ year.
First, it is necessary to note that Iglesias -- who was born in 1990 -- was the youngest position player in the league who stepped to the plate at least 300 times. He was a full four years younger than Ordonez when he was in Triple-A.
Secondly, for the second straight year, Iglesias lost some critical developmental time. He spent a couple weeks in the middle of the season on the bench in the major leagues while Marco Scutaro was on the DL. Then, in early July, he was beaned and ended up spending a couple weeks on the disabled list while recovering from a concussion.
“I think what really has hurt him have been some of the injuries that have held him back and not allowed him to get the full development time that we’d hoped he would have gotten in a couple years,” noted Romero.
Finally, members of the organizational insist that there was a very evident before and after for Iglesias on either side of his two-week stint in the majors in late-May and early-June. In the first two months of the season, Iglesias offered little but weak contact. He had one extra-base hit through the first two months with Pawtucket. He was not selective about the pitches at which he was swinging; his hand-eye coordination was good enough to get the bat on the ball on pitches that were tough to handle, but he couldn’t drive them (one double and no homers in 134 plate appearances) and he wasn’t walking (two walks).
When he came back from his time in the majors, during which he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, Iglesias seemingly had a better understanding of how far his approach was from being major league ready. He and Triple-A hitting coach Chili Davis worked together to get the young shortstop to zone in on pitches and then, in good counts, to turn his swing loose a bit in order to look to drive the ball.
“When he came back, he kind of realized how much he needed to work on some things,” said Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler, who also managed Iglesias with Portland in 2010. “He’s a very prideful kid. To go up [to the majors] and not do what he expected to do probably got to him a little bit and was a good thing for him. It motivated him when he came back to say that’s not going to happen again. He got after it, did a great job the second half of having some better at-bats and realizing what he needed to do to be successful up there.
“A lot of it was just plate recognition, getting himself into the count so he could put good swings on the ball,” added Beyeler. “He wasn’t in the hole and defensive all the time because he wasn’t chasing balls out of the zone all the time, and going up there with an approach to drive the baseball instead of going up with an approach to put it in play and get out of here.”
Iglesias did not suddenly become Troy Tulowitzki, but he did show progress from the first half to the second. After putting up a line of .227/.275/.245/.519 before the All-Star break in Triple-A, he posted marks of .250/.304/.313/.617 over the final months of the season. His walk rate roughly doubled after his big league stint, and nine of his 10 extra-base hits last year also came after he returned to the minors.
Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, but they do suggest a player who was having much more competitive at-bats. Perhaps more importantly, they offered evidence of some in-season progress, to the point where the Sox could feel as if his developmental path was moving in the right direction.
THE SPRING AND THE FUTURE
Iglesias has fewer than 700 minor league at-bats, or about one year and change. That being the case, Sox officials caution that the rapid abandonment of the Iglesias bandwagon – ranked the consensus top prospect in the Sox system entering 2011, the shortstop now falls outside most organizational top 10 lists – may be premature.
“He has a skill set and a tool set that made him a successful player prior to coming here and made him a successful player in 2010. That hasn’t gone away,” said Crockett. “One below average half of offensive performance – or if you want to look at it as a whole year together, fine – that doesn’t necessarily change the way we see his ability and how that’s going to play at the plate. I think overall we’re expecting Jose to come back – he’s worked really hard this offseason – expecting good things out of him in spring training.”
That said, even if he has an excellent spring training, barring some health calamity, Iglesias is all but certain to open 2012 in Triple-A. To this point, he has not had the at-bats that he needs in order to be a major league-ready hitter while in the minors.
His defense would be game-changing in the majors right now. Indeed, it is interesting to note that even though he missed a month of the Triple-A season, he still led the International League in total chances while also playing a central role in helping Pawtucket set team records in fielding percentage (Iglesias led International League shortstops with a .973 mark) and double plays.
But the Sox want Iglesias to have a foundation for sustained offensive success in the majors. They want to give Iglesias the time in the minor leagues to graduate to the majors at an appropriate pace, rather than putting him in a position where a promotion to the big leagues could result in a career setback.
“When it’s all said and done and he gets to the big leagues, he’s got to hit. If he’s not going to hit, he’s not going to stay up there,” said Beyeler. “How long are you going to let him hit a buck fifty? That really takes a toll on a kid mentally. These kids are prideful. Nobody wants a buck fifty on their baseball cards – not that he was hitting that. It gets frustrating. I don’t care how good a defender you are.
“He’s not afraid to work at all. He’s going to be a special kid sometime. We just need to be patient and make sure that when he gets back up there, he’s ready to stay and not be overmatched again where you’d get into a funk and say, ‘Is this guy ever going to hit?’” Beyeler added. “If we’re patient with him and give him an opportunity to develop like we’re supposed to, we’re going to have a pretty special kid when the time comes.”
When might that time come? It’s difficult to say. In a vacuum, the Sox would probably like Iglesias – who has two minor league options remaining – to spend a full, uninterrupted season in Triple-A during which both the player and the organization can see measurable progress in his offensive approach as a prelude to a late-season call-up. Taking such an approach would be easy to achieve if the Sox’ tandem of Aviles and Punto turns out to be a productive one.
The reality is that major league need could tweak that timetable. Perhaps at some point in the middle of 2012, if the left side of the Sox’ infield defense is wanting, they may feel compelled to call upon a player who can transform that facet of the team.
Ultimately, the team remains resolute that Iglesias will be a starting shortstop in the big leagues. Barring an unforeseen development, it won’t be at the start of 2012. In an ideal world, it might not even be at any point in 2012.
Still, even though the Sox are confident in what Aviles and Punto are capable of offering, the reality is that those two are in many ways – as Scutaro was when he signed – placeholders. They won’t block Iglesias’ path to the majors. When he is ready, Iglesias will have an opportunity. But the lesson of 2011 is that it is difficult to pinpoint the timing of his arrival, and that patience may prove a key ingredient in giving the 22-year-old the best grounding for a productive future.
“He’s a kid who you’re always going to raise the bar on, and he’s always going to reach up and grab it,” said Beyeler. “You just don’t know how long it’s going to take him to get there.”