NEW YORK -- The Gold Glove-caliber defense? Though the work that goes into achieving it should not be overlooked, there are elements of Jose Iglesias' quick-twitch magic in the field that come naturally. The occasional ability to lay into a fastball and crush it -- something that the 23-year-old did against a Hiroki Kuroda 92 mph fastball at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, an echo of the first swing he ever took while working out for the Red Sox, when he went deep at the team's Dominican academy on a 90 mph pitch? Even that represents a skill that is native to the Cuban.
But patience? A willingness to wait for his time in the big leagues? On that count, Jose Iglesias insists that he's trying, but unquestionably, it's a bit of a different story.
Rewind to 2010. Iglesias was in his first professional season in the United States after signing a four-year, $8.25 million major league contract to play for the Red Sox. Though his playing time was limited by injuries, he made a solid first impression in his first U.S. season, hitting .285 with a .315 OBP and .357 slugging mark in Double-A Portland. He showed enough offense that, in tandem with his exceptional defense at a key position, he emerged as the consensus top-ranked prospect in the Red Sox system, with the accompanying attention and prospect hype attendant upon such status.
"He wants to be in the big leagues tomorrow," Alex Ochoa, who spent the 2010 season as a special assistant to the GM with the Red Sox, spending the entire year helping Iglesias with his transition to the U.S. "I've had conversations about that with him. Sometimes he's like, 'I should be in the big leagues right now.' "
That, of course, was unrealistic. Hitting .285 with a .315 OBP in the U.S. doesn't even necessarily merit a promotion to Triple-A, let alone the majors. (Indeed, there was considerable debate in the Red Sox organization entering 2011 about whether Iglesias was ready for Pawtucket or should return to Portland.) But for Iglesias, the idea that he wasn't major league-ready was hard to comprehend.
It wasn't just cockiness. There was a cultural context to his confoundment.
In Iglesias' native Cuba, there was nothing like minor league baseball as it exists in the States. Quite to the contrary, the talent pool available to the 16 teams taking part in the Cuban National Series in the last seven or so years has become so watered down by defections that the idea of seeing 16-year-olds playing alongside players in their 40s has become commonplace.
"It can go from the highest level to a guy who wouldn't even be signed in pro ball here," one major league talent evaluator said about the players in Cuba's version of the big leagues. "There's a sharp drop-off."
That was the baseball environment in which Iglesias was brought up. His talents were significant enough that, at 16, he was playing for the Havana Industriales, the most renowned team in Cuba. In 2007, he gained a reputation as one of the top players in the league.
"We don't have [anything like the minor leagues]. It's a completely different culture about that," Iglesias explained before Sunday's game at Yankee Stadium. "I started with the big league club at 16. I hit .322 -- no homers, by the way -- but I hit .322 and played good defense, I took the team to the playoffs that year.
"I earned that position [with Havana as a 16-year-old]. And I was able to help the team that year," he added. "I think a lot of my confidence came from that -- 16 years old, performing well at the highest level in Cuba. It was fun. Actually, I made the All-Star game the next year when I was 17. That was pretty fun. I'm never going to forget that. It's always going to be in my mind -- I was one of the youngest guys to make the All-Star game."
So, when Iglesias defected from the Cuban National Team in 2008, he did so with the expectation of competing at the highest level in the States. He wasn't thinking about a player development process that would eventually bring him to the big leagues. He had a longstanding belief -- which had complete truth in Cuba -- that his talents were such that he could compete with anyone at the highest level.
Add to that the fact, as a 19-year-old, Iglesias signed a major league contract with the Red Sox. He did not get the typical baseball education of a teenager signed out of Latin America, didn't spend a year playing in the Dominican Summer League or roasting in Fort Myers in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung of baseball's minor league ladder.
Those are standard first steps for nearly all other player who sign as teenagers, with an education in the structure and pace of advancement in minor league baseball arriving in those seasons of anonymous toil. Iglesias never had that grounding. He had history as a big leaguer in another country, a belief that he could do the same anywhere, a contract that had the words "major league" in it, spring trainings spent (because of his contractual status) in big league camp and the prospect world telling him that he was the top prospect in the Red Sox farm system.
"I think when you're dealing not just with him but with young prospect guys, the stuff that [members of the media] write and we say as an organization sometimes ends up hurting us a little bit down the road," said Arnie Beyeler, who managed Iglesias in Portland in 2010 and in Pawtucket in 2011 and 2012. "Guys hear about how great they're going to be, hear that they're the heir apparent a year or two or three or four down the road. They start believing all the hype and it's not their fault.
"So when they don't get opportunities, or if the fit isn't there, or things happen like what happened this year where you sign another guy [Stephen Drew] and you're not going to be the guy in the big leagues yet, but you still are told what you are, then, what do you believe? What's going on? Those are the conversations that you have and talk about. You've just got to keep staying positive," he added. "You don't know [when you'll be in the big leagues]. Yet human nature gets you frustrated all the time. That's why we try to talk to our young guys about controlling the controllables."
Yet as much as Ochoa and Beyeler and others in the Red Sox system tried to offer that education to Iglesias, the lesson still didn't necessarily take, by Iglesias' own admission.
"It was difficult for me to learn, and it's still difficult to understand some things. It's a completely different culture, different scenarios. Baseball is the same, but the way they do things is different," said Iglesias. "It's kind of hard for me to understand the process. To me, there's no process. It's results, it's playing the game. Every team I've been on, it's been like that. That's how I grew up, that's my mentality. It's obviously going to take time to learn. Obviously you're going to be a better player each day if you put in the hard work and intensity. But to me, it's never been a process. I always wanted to win. That's how I grew up. That's the bottom line. That's the most important thing to me."
Iglesias has long believed in his ability to help the Red Sox do just that, even at the big league level. To a degree, there may be an element at times of poor self-evaluation in that assessment -- something that is common to not just prospects from Cuba but most professional players, who must have a strongly defined sense of self-confidence in order to advance and succeed at the highest levels.
Players must have the mental toughness to tune out those who detail their limitations and inadequacies. There are few players who make it to the big leagues without a measure of cockiness that permits them the certainty (whether realistic or not) that they can succeed there.
That all serves as background for where Iglesias is in 2013. He was somewhat unfamiliar with the business part of the game, the idea that his ticket back to the minors could be punched -- after spending the last month of 2012 as an everyday shortstop in the big leagues, albeit one who struggled desperately with the bat -- by the Sox' desire to find a more certain bet at shortstop, an established big leaguer with a track record of offensive and defensive success in Stephen Drew.
After he started the season well in the big leagues while filling in for the injured Drew, the shortstop initially appeared to handle his demotion to the minors well. But as time went on, his ongoing place in Pawtucket -- for a third straight year -- became difficult to tolerate. And his disappointment manifested itself on the playing field.
While Iglesias was pulled from a game by PawSox manager Gary DiSarcina on May 4 for his failure to run out a groundball, that wasn't the first time he'd failed to hustle on an infield grounder. Team officials felt that his effort on the field was wavering, inconsistent. So, not only did DiSarcina pull him from that game against Durham, but he also had the shortstop sit out of the next three contests, hoping that Iglesias would use the opportunity to clear his head, accept where he was and commit to making the best of it, to focusing on developing as a player rather than pouting about where he was and where he wasn't.
After all, while there may be elements of Iglesias' baseball background that played into his dissatisfaction with a minor league assignment, he's not the first player to be disappointed about the absence of a big league opportunity. And while there is sympathy for his eagerness to return to the big leagues, and the context of his baseball upbringing, he has been in the system for four years, with three of those spent seeing the dynamics that exist among players on the cusp of the big leagues in Triple-A.
It was necessary for Iglesias to wrap his head around the purpose of his minor league assignment.
"There's no doubt, I was frustrated at the time for some reasons. I was frustrated, disappointed. I think he did the right thing. I got benched for a few days just to regroup, and I think it really worked," said Iglesias. "That was Gary's decision. He decided to give me three days, and I'm glad he gave me those few days, because that put my mind in the right place again to be where I am and to perform the way I've been doing. I'm glad he made that decision. I think Gary's a great manager and he did the right thing."
That notion wasn't necessarily borne out in Iglesias' statistics in Pawtucket. He hit .157/.241/.216 in 14 games after his return to the lineup. Still, reports were that his effort level became once again consistent, his focus evident. That was true not just of his approach in games, but also to the enthusiasm he demonstrated for taking grounders at new positions -- second and third bases -- as the Sox decided to create multiple pathways to the majors by which Iglesias could help the team.
And so it was that, after just one game at third base (on May 21 -- followed by another at short on May 23), Iglesias was in position for a summons back to the big leagues when Will Middlebrooks landed on the DL with a lower back strain.
And his performance in the big leagues? Startling. He's hitting .424/.444/.606 with a homer and three doubles in 10 games at third base. There's undoubtedly some good fortune involved (a .500 batting average on balls in play is wholly unsustainable -- as one talent evaluator noted, "He’s about due for an 0-for-36 from the baseball gods"), but the frequency with which Iglesias is making solid contact has been impossible to deny.
"Confident, relaxed, allows him to generate the bat speed that he does have," Sox manager John Farrell said of the player's approach. "He’s been very balanced at the plate the entire time he’s been back in this second stint. Again, as he keeps playing, free of mind and playing very aggressively. Defensively, he’s been outstanding, and he shows he’s got some bat speed by hitting the home run to the pull side tonight.
"Most importantly, Jose has gotten back to a natural and aggressive swing that he was signed with and as a result, he’s put a lot of good swings on some pitches, he’s not trying to manipulate the ball around the field. He’s looking to put a good swing on pitches that are in the strike zone and he’s doing a good job of it."
How to explain the disparity between what Iglesias is doing in the big leagues as compared to how he was hitting in the minor leagues? The next good explanation will be the first … though the pitch-to-pitch focus that comes naturally to him at the big league level can't hurt. Nor can the tools -- most notably, considerable amounts of video data that Iglesias studies carefully prior to games -- available in the majors hurt.
"I just think the preparation for the game is obviously better here. I have fun here, especially when the team wins -- I really have fun helping this team win," Iglesias said of his performance. "I give 100 percent every single night, and I don't focus on results. My result is winning -- if we win, I'm fine. That's my result, that's always been my goal, winning the game. That's the bottom line. That's the most important thing."
He has undoubtedly contributed meaningfully to the Sox' ability to do just that. The Sox are 7-3 since Iglesias joined the lineup, and his multitude of multi-hit games and sparkling defense have been a part of that.
His contributions have become undeniable, eye-opening, to the point where manager John Farrell suggested that Iglesias may stick in the big leagues as a utility player beyond Middlebrooks' scheduled return on June 8. His ability to contribute as a third baseman points to the potential for value added to the big league club through versatility, offering multiple outlets for his defensive wizardry and his surprising offense.
Iglesias is embracing his role, his opportunity.
"I'm really glad to be here first of all, and also be in the lineup," he said. "To me, it doesn't really matter where I'm playing. Of course I would love to play short. That's my natural position. But if I've got to play third, I'll play third with passion and love. If I've got to play second, I will play the same way -- with passion and love. If I've got to catch tomorrow, I'll be catching. As long as I'm in the lineup, I'm glad to be in the lineup, no matter the position."
As for the idea that he might be able to stick, that the frustrations of round trips between Pawtucket and Boston have been the norm rather than a one-way journey with a permanent relocation to a home in the Red Sox clubhouse?
Iglesias tries to avoid getting too carried away at the thought of the possibility.
"That's up to John [Farrell], that's up to [Sox GM Ben Cherington]. That's those guys' decision," said Iglesias. "They have an idea what's best for the team. To me, if they keep me here, I will be the same guy. I will help this team like I've been doing and like I'm going to do. It's really fun -- it's really fun to be around these guys and to perform well in the big leagues. But I will not stop continuing to work and I will not stop continuing to get better every single minute. I always try to learn something and be a better player every day."
There is, he is learning, only so much he can control.