NEW YORK -- It is a luxury. It is not a controversy.
Jose Iglesias has been been a surprising early contributor to the Red Sox. But he remains, for now, a placeholder at shortstop. Stephen Drew is set to begin what is scheduled to be a four-game rehab assignment on Thursday with Double-A Portland, four weeks after he suffered a concussion when a fastball hit him squarely in the middle of his helmet.
Barring a setback, Drew likely will be activated next week, perhaps as soon as the Red Sox' home opener at Fenway Park on Monday. When he joins the big league team, Iglesias will head down to Triple-A Pawtucket. There's no gray area, no door ajar for the younger player to wedge himself into the Sox lineup and to displace the veteran who signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal this offseason.
"We're certainly not going to take away from what Jose's done, but we signed a premium guy in the offseason to be our starting shortstop and we're not going to look at an injury to cause him to lose his job," said Sox manager John Farrell.
Still, the Sox certainly view what Iglesias has been able to do as promising. The 23-year-old has not only brought his magical hands into the Red Sox infield but he's also managed to chip in offensively from the bottom of the lineup.
On Opening Day, he matched a career-high with three hits -- a bunt hit, an infield chopper and a swinging bunt. Given that the three hits traveled a combined 250 feet, it wasn't as if he scorched the ball, but the ability to put the ball in play permitted him to be a positive offensive contributor.
He followed that performance with a slightly more impressive one on Wednesday. He grounded an RBI double to left against right-hander Chad Eppley, and later pulled a single to a similar spot just inside the third-base bag against another right-hander in Adam Warren. A player who entered the year with just one multi-hit game in 35 career big league games now has doubled that total in the first two games of the 2013 season.
"I think the biggest change was in my mind. I put in the hard work this offseason to be in this position today and to help this team win some ballgames. I feel pretty good," Iglesias said after the Sox' 7-4 victory over the Yankees on Wednesday. "I'm seeing the ball a lot better. I kind of know the strike zone a little better. I'm feeling pretty good, pretty comfortable at the plate. ... I know what I've got to do to help this team -- run, be on base. I think I'm feeling pretty good all spring, and now the first two games of the season. Now I've got my confidence back, which is a good thing."
Those offensive contributions as a fill-in for Drew -- at a time when Iglesias has seemed to find his way to every ball hit up the middle -- certainly have been appreciated by his club.
"He's doing an outstanding job," said Farrell. "Much like we saw in spring training, he's back to that aggressive swing to the pull side and a couple of base hits inside the third-base bag. Defensively again, very strong night -- he almost makes one highlight reel type of play on [Yankees first baseman Lyle] Overbay, but he's doing an excellent job for us.
"At this point, you can't really measure [the significance of having him available] or put a value on it, other than he's right in the middle of a lot of things, both defensively and offensively. Again, we talked in spring training, I think he had something to prove a little bit after Stephen was signed here. The opening comes with the concussion. He's done a heck of a job."
Starting in spring training, Iglesias has looked like a better, more confident hitter than he did when he seemed overwhelmed at times in the big leagues last season. In 2012, he would go days without solid contact, going hitless in his first 17 plate appearances with the team while hitting .118 with a .200 OBP and .191 slugging mark in his 77 triple to the plate.
In spring training this year, he showed a better ability to swing at fastballs he could drive rather than chasing them out of the strike zone. He hit .294 with a .324 OBP, a .441 slugging mark and seven extra-base hits (five doubles, a triple and a homer) in 72 Grapefruit League plate appearances. Though he would still struggle with breaking balls, particularly from right-handers, Iglesias seemed to show better pitch recognition and a more consistent ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball than he did in the big leagues in 2012.
It's a performance that does have some precedent. A year ago, there were stretches in Pawtucket when Iglesias showed the ability to spray line drives around the field, most notably in August, when he hit .329 with a .402 OBP and .397 slugging mark. What he's showed this spring has been similar.
"I think we saw it over the course of the year in Pawtucket, moving in that direction. And then probably he went through his transition of playing in September. It's what we've seen all spring, too," said Sox general manager Ben Cherington. "It looks like his base is underneath him. It gives him a chance to use his hands and swing the bat with more authority. He's still aggressive at the plate, but his base is more underneath him, so he's making hard contact instead of just defensively putting the ball in play."
Given that Iglesias has looked capable of some level of offensive production, it's easy to be seduced by his remarkable defensive gifts and to conclude that the Sox may want to consider keeping him as their shortstop for a more extended period.
So why isn't that on the table? A number of reasons:
-- Drew has a career track record that suggests he's capable of being one of the most productive shortstops in the big leagues. Though he wasn't always able to demonstrate that offensively in 2012, coming back from a full season of lost time due to a horrific ankle fracture, his ability to hit for power, to command the strike zone and to get on base in the years before his injury suggested a player who ranked among the top offensive shortstops in the game.
The Sox see in Drew a left-handed hitter with double-digit home run power and an advanced plate approach from the left side of the plate. He represents an important component in achieving lineup balance while creating a batting order that, from top to bottom, offers little breathing room for opposing pitchers.
"He's an important addition to this team," said Cherington. "We feel over the course of the season that he's going to be really important, to balance out the lineup and be a steady player."
-- Drew is no slouch defensively. Indeed, prior to his concussion, a number of team officials expressed tremendous encouragement about how fluid he looked defensively. Drew suggested that he's never moved better in the field, and while playing short, while he did not have the same flare for the spectacular as Iglesias, his range and smooth actions -- not to mention one of the more precise throwing arms in the game from that position -- suggested a player who might grade as above average defensively.
It would be one thing if the Sox were choosing between Iglesias and a butcher. But the relative benefit of having a wizard such as Iglesias is muted somewhat by the presence of a defender in Drew who is more than adequate.
-- Iglesias has yet to demonstrate that he can sustain a high level of play over a full season in the minors. He's suffered injuries in each of his first three minor league seasons that have limited his ability to stay on the field, and that have hindered his production at times when he's moved between the DL and active roster.
"It's just playing a six-month season -- doing it, being a guy who the manager can depend on every day to play shortstop over the course of a six-month season. He hasn't done that yet," Cherington said when asked to cite the most important player development challenges for the shortstop. "He's made strides offensively in terms of being able to impact the baseball and being a threat, and he's making the routine play more consistently. He did that in the spring. I think it's just proving that he's dependable, day in, day out."
Given that Iglesias has never played more than 115 games in a season, it would be difficult for the Sox to commit to him on a full-time basis while doing something extreme such as entertaining the possibility of trading Drew.
-- Iglesias is hardly a finished product offensively. He still has just over 1,000 plate appearances as a professional, and there are times when the inexperience shows. He is showing an improved ability to recognize pitches that he can drive, but that process remains incomplete. And he still struggles against breaking stuff, a hole that opponents can and will exploit; he can diminish that weakness with more times seeing relatively advanced offspeed offerings in Triple-A.
-- Depth is critical. The Sox are benefiting now from having a player who can be a viable big league contributor at a premium positional a time when their slated starter (Drew) is out. Iglesias is a better, more impactful alternative than Pedro Ciriaco. The best way for the team to preserve strength at the position is by giving Drew an opportunity to demonstrate that he is once again an above-average two-way contributor at short while allowing Iglesias to cement his progress while demonstrating that he can withstand the rigors of playing every day in Pawtucket.
"Jose's made great strides," said Cherington. "It's great to have both of them in the organization."
At some point, perhaps, the team will face a point where a traffic jam of shortstops will require some kind of move. Perhaps Iglesias will sustain a level of play that is so strong that it becomes impossible to deny him a spot on the big league roster. Perhaps Drew won't approach the level of production that characterized his game from 2008-10, thus negating some of the offensive benefit of keeping him in the majors. Maybe Xander Bogaerts will dominate Double-A while further solidifying impressions that he can be a viable big league shortstop who needs to be challenged by heading to Triple-A.
If a couple of those scenarios unfold simultaneously, then perhaps the Sox will be in a position similar to where they found themselves last June, when a trade of Kevin Youkilis to clear the way for an emerging Will Middlebrooks was unavoidable.
But five hits (three infield hits, two well-placed and reasonably well-struck ground balls that snuck down the left field line) in two regular-season games hasn't brought the team to that point. Right now, Drew's overall skill set suggests both a higher baseline and ceiling than what Iglesias offers. That's subject to change based on the performances of both, but for now, the rationale for remaining committed to Drew is unaltered by anything that's transpired thus far in 2013.
Nonetheless, what has transpired thus far in 2013 is significant: Iglesias, in contrast to a year ago, is displaying the on-field confidence that he's ready to contribute in the big leagues when called upon. He is not obsessing about the duration of his role in the big leagues, instead focusing on what he can do to help the Sox win.
"I haven't heard anything [about what will happen when Drew returns]," said Iglesias. "I'm just focused on playing the game one day at a time, and be in the best position possible to help this team win some ballgames.
"[The roster decision is] Ben's job. That's not my job. My job is to come back for tomorrow's game and to help this team win another game."
It is an approach that will serve Iglesias well until he passes the baton to Drew.