Jose Iglesias is a defensive prodigy. Flashing the dexterity and speed of a sleight-of-hand magician, Iglesias treated Detroit Tigers fans to several incredible defensive plays during the 2013 season. Stress fractures in both his shins ended his season before it began in 2014, leaving Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski scrambling for stop-gap measures at the shortstop position. Now, with those issues behind him, what can the Tigers expect from the defensive wizard in 2015?
The 25-year-old Iglesias stand 5'11" and weighs a surprising 185 pounds. Born and raised in Cuba, Iglesias defected in 2008 while in Canada for the World Junior Championships. After escaping from the team hotel, Iglesias was forced to hide out for two days before crossing the border to seek political asylum in the United States. He was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2009 to a four-year, $8.25 million dollar contract.
Showing a maturity beyond his then-18 years, Iglesias immersed himself in American history and culture, and took every opportunity to absorb the language and customs of his adoptive country. Theo Epstein, then the Red Sox general manager, found him to be an extremely impressive young man worth risking the money on. Epstein stated, "He had really taken to heart what it means to become a pro baseball player in America. He knows more about American history than most of our minor leaguers."
By age 21, Iglesias had reached Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket affiliate, where he spent most of 2011-2012. As is still the case, his defensive abilities were never in doubt, but he struggled at the plate before improving from his .235/.285/.269 line in 2011 to a more respectable .266/.318/.306 in 396 plate appearances in 2012.
After several cups of coffee with the Red Sox during his apprenticeship at the Triple-A level, Iglesias was called up for good on May 20, 2013 to replace an injured Will Middlebrooks at third base. He would remain with the club, playing both third base and shortstop until July 30, when he was dealt to the Tigers in a three-team deal involving the Chicago White Sox.
Acquired to replace Jhonny Peralta during his 50-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs in the Biogenesis scandal, the Tigers saw Iglesias as their long-term solution at shortstop. They declined to make Peralta a qualifying offer after the 2013 season, and he departed via free agency. In his short time with the Tigers in 2013, Iglesias produced stellar defensive performances while managing to contribute a bit with his bat. He hit .303/.349/.386 in 382 plate appearances between Boston and Detroit.
Late in the 2013 season, Iglesias was noticeably hobbled by shin splints, which were eventually diagnosed as stress fractures in both tibias. The injuries affected both his range and base-stealing ability down the stretch. An offseason of rehabilitation was unsuccessful, and Iglesias was placed on the disabled list during spring training, ultimately missing the entire 2014 campaign.
Jose Iglesias will earn $1.44 million in 2015. He has just over two years of major league service time, and will be arbitration eligible next winter. Iglesias will not reach free agency until after the 2018 season.
Stats and Projections
The projections are pretty bleak, but it's hard to argue with them. His 2013 numbers, which were quite solid for a defense-first shortstop, were buoyed by a .356 BABIP. Despite his speed, his batted ball profile in 2013 shows no sign of the kind of contact required to sustain that kind of good fortune. A merely solid line drive rate of 18.0 percent, when coupled with a pop-up rate over 19 percent is not going to reproduce the high batting average Iglesias posted in 2013. Likewise, projected walk rates just under 5 percent will only do so much to help his on-base percentage. Couple that with over a year out of the game, and you have to expect a pretty rough first half offensively for the young shortstop.
On the plus side, Eugenio Suarez and Andrew Romine combined in 2014 for even worse numbers than Iglesias is projected to post. It won't take any improvement on Jose's projections to be just as valuable offensively. However, it's very likely that he will struggle in the first half of the season as he gets re-familiarized with major league pitching. He has struck out less than 10 percent of the time this spring, so perhaps some comfort can be taken from the fact that his eye appears unaffected by his year away from the game. Tiger fans will need to be patient with the young shortstop. It's probably best to view him like a rookie coming back from his injuries, and hope that by late spring he's finding his groove at the plate again. Presumably, the presence of both Hernan Perez and Andrew Romine indicates that the Tigers will give Iglesias regular days off in the early going to avoid recurrence of any shin issues, and to allow him to build up his leg strength.
Defensively, Iglesias is a special player. He combines the range, awareness and lightning fast hands of an elite shortstop. He'll regularly steal a base hit from a batter unfortunate enough to put a ball in play anywhere in his vicinity. There are few things more entertaining to watch in the game than a defender with Iglesias' flare and ability. Combined with another excellent defender in second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers' double play combo should do a lot to support the pitching staff this season. Until, he's able to shake off the rust at the plate, the Tigers will have to content themselves with his defense. No doubt the pitching staff will be thrilled to have him backing them up in 2015.