FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jose Iglesias is better than he was a year ago. Of that there is no question.
In some ways, where Iglesias ended up -- he was optioned to Triple-A on Tuesday morning -- is secondary to the idea that there’s a conversation about his appropriate level at all. That would not have been the case if Iglesias had merely picked up where he left off at the end of last year, having made some strides in the second half of his year in Pawtucket but still clearly not yet ready from an offensive standpoint for the major leagues.
"What I see this spring is a different hitter than I’ve seen in the past. The ability to not just impact the baseball, but he’s shown a little bit more patience to swing at balls in the zone on the fastball," Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said prior to Iglesias' assignment to Pawtucket. "He has shown a tendency to chase breaking balls out of the zone, but a lot of that is experience and exposure.
"Now, is he going to get that in Triple-A or is he going to get that with us? That remains to be seen. That decision is out of my hands. But he has shown improvement, and I’ve been impressed with the improvement, especially over when he came up [to the big leagues] the second time [in a September callup]. As much better as he was the second time than the first time, he’s shown that much improvement this spring. He’s a very talented player. For me, he just needs that experience. With experience, there’s no telling what he can do."
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine -- considered an incredible talent evaluator -- has said he views Iglesias’ glove as major league ready (a view shared by virtually anyone who has watched him for any period of time) and, more interestingly, made the same assessment of his bat.
Iglesias showed some interesting signs at the plate early in spring training games, primarily with the ability to impact fastballs in a different fashion than a year ago. He was able to get his hands inside a 93 mph fastball and line a triple down the right-field line; he had numerous hard lineouts to center field; he delivered a hit-and-run single to right.
Those were all intriguing signs, but as one evaluator noted, that production came early in camp, at a time when opposing pitchers feature fastball-heavy arsenals while trying to build arm strength. More recently, Iglesias has struggled offensively, particularly against major league-caliber breaking balls. While he has shown an improved ability to remain in the strike zone on fastballs -- a key component of offensive improvement -- he remains far from a finished product despite the improvements he’s made.
Spring numbers aren’t terribly meaningful given the small sample and the fact of pitchers getting their work in. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the performances of Iglesias and the man against whom he was competing (at least theoretically) for the starting shortstop job this spring, Mike Aviles. Iglesias hit .200 (5-for-25) with a .286 OBP, .280 slugging mark and .566 OPS; Aviles is hitting .333 with a .333 OBP (having been outwalked by Iglesias, 1-0), .533 slugging mark and .867 OPS. Of Aviles’ 15 hits this spring, just over half (8) have been for extra bases.
The potential upside of Iglesias probably exceeds that of Aviles. Assuming that he continues his offensive progression, there will come a point where the combined value of his exceptional defense should combine with passable bottom-of-the-order offense to surpass the impact of Aviles.
Is that moment right now? It’s difficult to make that case, for a number of reasons.
A few thoughts on why it makes sense for Iglesias to open the year in the minors:
HE’S NOT REY ORDONEZ … AND THAT MIGHT BE A REASON TO LET HIM DEVELOP
Defensively, Iglesias may well be the equivalent already of all-glove/no-hit shortstop Rey Ordonez, the three-time Gold Glover who broke into the big leagues under Valentine with the Mets in the late-1990s. But he’s already separated himself from Valentine’s former shortstop in terms of showing greater offensive ability, as noted by former Mets outfielder and current Red Sox coach Alex Ochoa. (Click here to see Ochoa's analysis.)
While one might think that would be an argument in favor of letting Iglesias play in the majors, the opposite may be true. Those who saw Ordonez in the minors saw a swing-at-everything tendency that showed little development.
He had no approach when he started in the minors, and for the most part, he showed no approach as he got more experience. He was older than Iglesias and unreceptive to instruction. As such, there simply weren’t signs to suggest that he would benefit offensively from the player development experience.
Iglesias, on the other hand, has shown the intelligence and self-awareness to adapt. In a fashion that is, in some ways, remarkable for a 22-year-old with fewer than 700 career plate appearances, Iglesias proclaimed last year’s struggle at Pawtucket (when he hit .235 with a .285 OBP, .269 slugging mark and .554 OPS, making him the least impactful offensive player in the International League) to have been a valuable experience.
"People think it was a bad year. I think it was a good year," Iglesias said. "I learned a lot from it. I prepared myself better this year. I feel way better at the plate this year. My mechanics, I made a couple adjustments. I think with my mechanics, right now, the discipline comes with it.
"I can feel myself in a better position at the plate. I can drive the ball better right now. I’ve got more discipline and I hit it hard more of the time. After you hit it hard, you can’t control what happens. Sometimes you’re hitting .200 but you hit it hard and you can’t do anything about it. But physically, mentally, I feel very good."
That thought process underscores the idea that Iglesias is capable of development, and making strides in the minors to gain greater comfort against good breaking balls to know how to handle them. In the major leagues, it is difficult to imagine that some of his remaining offensive deficiencies wouldn’t be exposed for some stretch of the season.
CONFIDENCE GAME: A RISK/REWARD BALANCE
In a best-case scenario, Iglesias represents a better option than Aviles. If he can hit for a modest average, draw a few walks, deliver the occasional extra-base hit, learn to foul off enough pitches to drive up some pitch counts, then he would represent a very impressive player.
But what if he’s not ready for the best-case scenario? And what is the most likely scenario?
Players coming up to the majors struggle. It’s a reality of the process of transitioning to the game’s highest level. Iglesias was pushed to Triple-A last year at age 21, and it took him half a season to respond. In the first half, he hit .227 with a .275 OBP, .245 slugging mark (one extra-base hit) and a .519 OPS. In the second half, he hit .250/.304/.313/.617.
Sox officials note how impressive it was that Iglesias did not retreat like a turtle into his shell after those early struggles, but instead remained open-minded to instruction and worked to improve in the second half, especially after a two-week call-up in May gave him a clearer picture of what he needed to do to get better.
He could be offensively serviceable. But would he be? And what happens if he’s not?
There are the questions of whether the Sox could afford to carry a player who faces at least the possibility of ranking among the least productive offensive players in the American League (a mantle he wore in Pawtucket last year), and what it would do to Iglesias’ confidence and development path if he does struggle.
The confidence game is particularly complicated. Iglesias responded favorably to adversity last year, and remained unbowed.
"I came to this camp to win the job," said Iglesias. "That’s my goal."
Still, until a player endures the challenge of hitting below .200 in the majors, it’s impossible to say how he would respond.
Of course, Dustin Pedroia shook off a dismal start to his big league career to become a superstar. But his ability to turn around his fortunes in the big leagues is unusual. Some players get stung and end up needing a significant period of time to regroup in the minors (see Clay Buchholz in 2008); some are shell-shocked and seemingly never recover (former Sox reliever Craig Hansen, now out of organized baseball, comes to mind as someone whose career was derailed by being rushed).
Assuming that the Sox have confidence that the group of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz is healthy, they can likely afford to carry some dead weight in the lineup in exchange for the exceptional defense Iglesias would offer.
But, if the team has a viable big league option and can give Iglesias more time to develop in the minor league incubator, that’s a far different consideration than if the team’s options were Iglesias and, say, Cesar Crespo.
THE ALTERNATIVE: AVILES LOOKS SOLID
Is Aviles better offensively right now than Iglesias? No question.
Is Iglesias better than Aviles defensively right now? No question.
Is Aviles adequate defensively right now? Likely, yes.
Is Iglesias adequate offensively right now? Unknown.
If Aviles had looked terrible at shortstop this spring, then Iglesias might have had an opportunity to kick the door open. But that hasn't been the case. He’s shown decent range to both his right and left (better range to both sides, one evaluators noted, than Marco Scutaro displayed last year) and he’s been steady enough to look like a big league shortstop.
"This spring, when he came in, I think his attitude because of Scutaro getting traded an all that, his attitude toward the position has been great. He’s been working extremely hard at it, very open to suggestions," bench coach Tim Bogar said. "What I’ve seen of him has been nothing but positive. He’s made all the plays. He knows where he’s supposed to be. I think he’s comfortable with [Pedroia] at second base, and I think the pitchers are comfortable having him play there."
Certainly, Aviles himself professes a comfort and confidence at the position.
"I don’t really have a question that I can play short," he told reporters on Sunday. "I’ve always felt like I could play short. I feel comfortable, and I’m having fun."
Seemingly everyone on the Sox -- including Valentine, members of the coaching staff and members of the front office -- views Aviles as a credible option at short. If Aviles and Iglesias are close in terms of their overall package of talents right now, then for both the short-term and long-term, it likely makes sense to start Iglesias in the minors while having Aviles serve as the everyday shortstop, at least at the start of the year.
On the subject of that longer-term …
THE FUTURE: KEEPING IGLESIAS FOR HIS BEST YEARS
The Red Sox are extremely mindful of the value of having players in the middle of their prime years. A player peaks offensively in his late 20s, slightly earlier defensively. In terms of overall value, the Sox still consider a player's prime years to be the ages of 27-31.
The best way to build a team capable of perennial contention is to have a player development system from which players graduate on a steady basis in order to spend their prime years in Boston. The ability to control the pre-free agent years of homegrown players represents a central aspect of building a championship-caliber roster, both because players at that phase of their career are affordable and, more importantly, at their best.
If the Sox would have opened the year with Iglesias in the majors and he never looked back, then he would be eligible for free agency after the 2017 season, at a time when he will have just concluded his age 27 season. With them allowing him at least a couple months in the minors, then not only will it help to fill out his experiential database a bit, but it will also delay his free agency for another year -- and not just any year, but an age 28 season that will lie squarely in his prime.
So, even if the Sox concluded that Iglesias was an obviously better candidate for the starting shortstop job than Aviles right now, the team would have had to weigh the benefit of two months of Iglesias in the majors (the Sox could call up Iglesias in May or June and push back his service clock enough to delay his free agency until the 2018 season) at the start of his age 22 season for a full year of his services at age 28.
If Marco Scutaro hadn’t been traded, the idea of Iglesias as an everyday shortstop likely wouldn’t have taken hold. That being the case, it seemed unlikely to think that the same reality wouldn’t be in place with Aviles as an available option.
Red Sox decision-makers felt all along that Aviles represented a comparable talent to Scutaro at shortstop, and this spring has done little to alter that perception. Aviles has better overall defensive range and a better arm than Scutaro; Scutaro was probably the defensively steadier option. Scutaro had more grinding at-bats and more willingness to work a walk; Aviles is more aggressive at the plate but with more pop.
Overall, the projected difference between the two -- at least from the Sox’ vantage point -- is limited. That being the case, in a world in which Iglesias was going to return to the minors to conclude his apprenticeship behind Scutaro, the same dynamic would seem likely with regards to Aviles.
The one wild card is that Iglesias has shown more offensive progress than expected this spring, but the degree of that improvement should not be exaggerated. Iglesias does look very much like the Red Sox’ shortstop of the future. As for the present, that’s another story.