This year is different for Jose Iglesias.
Two years ago, he was sent down to minor league camp on March 14 in the first round of cuts. Likewise, last year he was among the first wave of players to be optioned to the minors when the Sox moved him to minor league camp exactly a year ago today.
This year, on he stays as the Red Sox continue to try to gauge how close he is to major league ready. Officially, Iglesias has just 10 at-bats in Grapefruit League games this spring. He hasn’t played in a game in a week while dealing with the effects of a stiff groin (something that would have allowed him to survive the first wave of cuts, which took place on Friday, regardless of his performance) and he has all of three hits.
Nonetheless, it has been a spring performance in which Iglesias has underscored some of the optimism about his offense that exists in the Red Sox organization. He is 3-for-10 with a triple, and he has consistently made clean, hard contact, driving the ball to center field with unexpected authority (even if he wasn’t necessarily rewarded for hard line drives into stiff winds that prevented some of his hits from carrying) while also showing an ability to pull his hands inside the ball to shoot inside fastballs on a line to right field.
The concern about Iglesias was and remains the feeling that he could be Rey Ordonez, v. 2.0, a player whose worst-in-the-majors offense offset the considerable defensive gifts of the three-time Gold Glover. But one man who has seen a significant chunk of both players’ careers suggests that this spring underscores the idea that the Iglesias/Ordonez comparisons don’t hold water.
Red Sox first base coach Alex Ochoa played with Ordonez in the majors and minors as a member of the Mets from 1995-97. After the Sox signed Iglesias in 2009, Ochoa -- in his capacity as a special assistant to the Red Sox GM -- worked with Iglesias both in the Arizona Fall League in 2009 and then in all of the 2010 season in Portland. Now together with the prospect in big league camp, Ochoa has seen the majority of Iglesias’ professional games.
And so, based on his experiences with both, Ochoa was asked whether Iglesias was a greater offensive talent than Ordonez.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. Definitely,” said Ochoa. “Rey got a little bit better towards the end, when he realized he needed a better approach, but [Iglesias] is ahead of him in that aspect. I played with Rey in ’95 in Triple-A, played against him and with him, and he was always swinging at everything. I don’t know if he thought he was a home run hitter. He just thought he needed to use his body to hit the ball harder. Iggy has a better approach.”
That notion has been highlighted this spring, when Ochoa has seen a player whose swing looks considerably better than the one with whom he last worked in 2010. Iglesias’ swing is different than it was two seasons ago in Double-A, with the possibility of creating more impact.
“From the looks of his swing so far, it’s been night and day. It really has,” said Ochoa. “He’s driving the ball to center. He’s controlling the bat head very well, whereas in Portland, he’d get a lot of infield hits, he’d swing around the ball a little bit, just things like that. He’s staying inside the ball better.
“It’s super-nice to see him evolve,” added Ochoa. “What he’s done at the plate, he’s so much better now than it was. It’s nice to watch, and nice to see a good kid understand himself. That’s why you play games in the minor leagues. The more games you play, the more you evolve as a player.”
That is the perspective of someone who has witnessed the two end points of Iglesias’ career, and who has seen his progress since his first days in the Red Sox organization. Yet those whose vantage point is confined to the present have also been impressed with the 22-year-old.
Sox manager Bobby Valentine had reviewed both internal organizational scouting reports on Iglesias and video of his swing while he was in the minors. He did not see a lot to like. This spring, however, while Valentine has had his first in-person look at Iglesias, has been another story.
“What I heard wasn't good and what I saw wasn't good and what I was hoping for him to do was make necessary adjustments, and I think he's made them,” Valentine told reporters on Friday. “His cage session today, if he can take that cage into a game, I think that he's an offensive player.
“His approach is now balanced. It's correct mechanically. The only thing it's lacking now is proper timing. Once he really gets accustomed to his swing and figures out when to start it, I think he has a chance at being an offensive player. This is a real swing he has now,” added Valentine. “Now, I know when the lights go on and things start speeding up, a lot of those practice mechanics disappear in a lot of people.
“But what it is, what you're dealing with, is a feeling and right now, it's a good feeling,” he continued. “Believe me, [Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan] and [minor league hitting coordinator Victor Rodriguez] and he have slowly but in a very straight-line progression gotten to where he is now. And it hasn't been taking two steps back. It's been, this is what you have to do, figure it out, feel it, feel it. We'll see. I've been impressed.”
The bar is set low for what Iglesias must do offensively in order to be a good player. He will rank among the best defensive players in the majors anytime that he is playing at the game's highest level.
But what if he doesn’t hit at all? Iglesias undeniably possesses a special glove. It remains to be seen how that translates to run prevention, but “Fielding Bible” author John Dewan did note, during a visit to Fort Myers this week, that there is precedent -- albeit at the extreme of Dewan has seen while studying defense -- for an offensively deficient shortstop to have such a good glove as to make him a fine everyday player.
He pointed to Adam Everett, a player with limited offensive skill, as having turned in the greatest defensive season he could recall for a shortstop in recent years. During Everett’s run with the Astros last decade, at one point, Dewan noted that the shortstop saved 34 runs in a season while hitting .239 with a .290 OBP, .352 slugging mark and .642 OPS.
So how valuable was he to the Astros?
“When you’re saving 40 runs, that’s a lot of weak bat you can take,” said Dewan. “He was a Punch-and-Judy .250, .260 hitter. He wasn’t as good as Derek Jeter. Even when Jeter was minus-20 (in runs saved), his offense more than made up for it. I would rather have had Jeter with his horrible defense than Everett with his fantastic defense, but (Everett) was certainly an above-average shortstop when he was saving 40 runs in a year.”
Of course, as remarkable as Iglesias’ defensive talents are, it is premature to pen him in for annual defensive contributions that would equal those of the best defensive year by a shortstop of the last decade. That is why, in all likelihood, the Sox will give Iglesias more time in the minors to continue his development and to give him a grounding -- both in terms of his offensive approach and, the team hopes, with some success under his belt -- to put him in the best position to succeed offensively.
That said, he remains in Red Sox big league camp for a reason, and it’s not just because he’s injured. In his first two spring trainings, Iglesias did not appear to be anywhere close to a big league hitter. Now, that is different.
While his prospect status dropped like an anchor during a 2011 season in which he was arguably the worst offensive player in the International League (.235 average, .285 OBP, .269 slugging, .554 OPS), it has been buoyed by his spring. Iglesias may start the year in the minors (with what team president/CEO Larry Lucchino described this week as no more than a “remote chance” that he cracks the big league roster), but his time is drawing closer.
There is a danger in putting too much significance into what one sees in spring training, both during games and behind the scenes. If Iglesias is optioned back to Pawtucket and regresses as a hitter in April, then his apparent spring progress will become a footnote.
Nonetheless, for what those spring impressions are worth, Iglesias appears to be nearing the time when the “Shortstop of the Future” label will turn into a tag of “Shortstop of the Present.” At 22, the shortstop is getting ready for his close-up.