If they squint a little bit, no doubt the Detroit Tigers can still see the makings of a star shortstop when Jose Iglesias is on the field. Since they acquired Iglesias following Jhonny Peralta’s suspension in August 2013, the Tigers have considered themselves set at the position. And when he's been healthy, Iglesias has been a productive player.
Still, the hope has always been that Iglesias would produce another gear at some point and become a major part of the roster. With just two years remaining before the 26-year-old reaches free agency, it’s still very much an open question if he will be part of the organization's long-term future. After a lackluster 2016 season at the plate, it’s no easier to make the argument that he should be.
Heading into 2016, expectations for Iglesias' growth offensively were pretty straightforward. The Tigers wanted either more extra base power, or more walks. But while Iglesias continued to be extraordinarily hard to strike out, the ball refused to bounce his way for much of the season. And he showed no growth in his ability to take a walk.
Yet despite the depressed production, Iglesias was basically the same hitter we've seen since he was acquired from the Red Sox. He rarely swings and misses, though he continues to chase breaking balls off the plate too much. He left the strike zone a little more this season, yet continues to be as hard to strike out as any hitter in the game. Iglesias made contact a whopping 91.2 percent of the time, leading all qualified players in 2016. He also made contact at a higher rate when he left the strike zone than in 2015.
His strikeout and walk rates were identical to last season and the slight differences in swing and contact were pretty marginal. He appears to have been basically the same hitter as always, with worse luck, as his drastically reduced BABIP argues. He continued to put the ball on the ground or on a line just as always. They just refused to go for hits. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to add any power to compensate.
Iglesias saw fastballs over sixty percent of the time in 2016. Unfortunately, even against fastballs Iglesias didn't do much damage, particularly against right-handed pitching. Like most hitters, he struggles from behind in counts, but even when he was ahead this season, he didn't capitalize with more power. In 1-0 counts in 2016, Iglesias got a fastball about two-thirds of the time, and yet swung at less than a quarter of them. While he can get his bat on nearly anything close, his selection process is still lacking.
At times, attempting to be more patient at the plate seemed to freeze him instead. To improve, he's going to have take advantage of hitters' counts better than that. He was often caught swinging at breaking balls when behind, and taking fastballs when ahead. Which doesn't work out well, as Iglesias hits fastballs harder than anything else.
So, there are two ways to take Iglesias' season at the plate. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to think the ball bounces his way in 2017, and he combines league average offensive production with the gains in his defense and baserunning we saw this season. After all, he appears unchanged from the league average offensive contributor we saw in 2013 and 2015. Maybe you finally get one of those three or four WAR seasons and you've got yourself a pretty valuable player.
Maybe he does a better job attacking fastballs early in counts, flashes more power on the lines and up the gaps and you have yourself a legitimate breakout. At very least, the Tigers comfortably have themselves an inexpensive, league average shortstop. That's still a nice thing to have.
But a more pessimistic view is that Iglesias still doesn't draw many walks, and hasn't made any gains in his power numbers in consecutive seasons. No tangible improvements in his approach are evident. He's still overpowered by major league fastballs far too often for a guy with his hand-eye coordination, even in situations where he should be anticipating them.
As a result, you end up with a slap hitter without even Cameron Maybin's power or plate discipline. Iglesias' ability to get on base may continue to rely too much on speed going forward. He still hasn't developed as a base-stealing threat. Couple that with a player who has struggled to stay on the field full-time and you have to wonder how much meat is left on the bone. The Tigers need to ask themselves how likely it is that Iglesias has hit his final plateau as a hitter.
Iglesias is entering his second season of arbitration and will be a free agent after the 2018 season. A Scott Boras client, the assumption has always been that Iglesias would eventually seek free agency, and at no point have the Tigers shown an inclination to offer a contract extension. With the Tigers' front office signaling a willingness to make some major trades, Iglesias certainly doesn't feel like a lock to return in 2017. Still he doesn't represent either a significant payroll savings or a major return in talent where he to be traded.
Iglesias is in a middle ground where he hasn't played well enough to make him a really valuable trade piece, and yet has been good enough, and cheap enough, at a vital position for the Tigers to be happy to keep him. There also isn't a heir apparent behind him in the Tigers' farm system. It seems most likely that the Tigers would bank on an offensive rebound next year, both for their chances in 2017, and in the hope that he might help his trade value.
Expect to see Jose Iglesias back at shortstop next season. Just don't count on it just yet.