FORT MYERS, Fla. - Four young infielders - Lars Anderson, Oscar Tejeda, Jose Iglesias, and Will Middlebrooks - were waiting to take a few ground balls on Field 1 at the Red Sox player development complex yesterday when manager Bobby Valentine happened on the scene.
Valentine grabbed a bat and started slapping at balls flipped to him by a coach. Suddenly, a routine workout became a chance to impress the new boss, and the intensity was dialed up.
Iglesias would not let a ball get past him, at one point sprinting to his right and leaping to catch a mis-hit line drive off Valentine’s bat.
“Attaboy!’’ yelled Valentine, who was swinging as if he were trying to make the team.
Iglesias then ranged behind second base and in one motion used his glove to flip the ball to Tejeda from between his legs. By now, a crowd of fans had gathered to watch the magic show.
Iglesias made several more dazzling plays before Valentine went off in search of a bottle of water.
“Thanks, Bobby,’’ Iglesias said. “That was fun. You had me running.’’
Later, when speaking to reporters, Valentine was careful not to heap too much praise on the 22-year-old shortstop.
“My first impression is that he can catch it,’’ said the manager. “I bet you he can throw it after he catches it, too.’’
But can he hit it? In two minor league seasons since his arrival from Cuba, Iglesias has hit .261 with a .308 on-base percentage. In 618 at-bats, he has only 27 extra-base hits, one of them a home run. Those numbers suggest that Iglesias will be overmatched at the major league level, perhaps badly.
But he has taken steps to improve. Iglesias added 10 pounds over the winter and cut down on his body fat, giving himself a better a chance to drive the ball.
“I’m stronger, and I know that’s going to help me,’’ Iglesias said. “I had to make my body better and I did a lot of work.’’
Iglesias hit two balls over the fence in left field during batting practice yesterday and sprayed several well-hit balls to right field. His swing appeared more fluid than last year, and clearly there was more power behind it.
“I just need to play more, see more pitches,’’ he said. “That’s what is going to help me the most. My biggest goal this year is just to play and be more consistent and more disciplined.’’
Iglesias spent his winter in Miami working out with Marco Scutaro, one of his mentors. When Scutaro was traded to the Rockies in January, a door opened for Iglesias.
“It was sad news, because I love Scutaro,’’ said Iglesias. “He is a great man and great teammate. He always helped me out.
“But it’s a great opportunity for me. Marco told me this was my chance.’’
The Red Sox have not ruled out the idea of Iglesias taking the job. But the intent is to have veterans Mike Aviles and Nick Punto play the position until Iglesias is ready. It would take an unexpected series of events this spring for Iglesias to start on Opening Day.
“He needs to become more of a complete player,’’ general manager Ben Cherington said. “But we think he can be a very good major league shortstop.’’
Valentine has been down this road before. In 1996, when he replaced Dallas Green as manager of the Mets, he inherited slick-fielding Cuban shortstop Rey Ordonez.
A three-time Gold Glove winner early in his career, Ordonez hit .245 in seven years with the Mets and never had an OPS higher than .636.
Valentine knows people will make that comparison and he sees the similarities, particularly in how Iglesias can flip the ball with his glove. But that was as far as he wanted to go.
“I didn’t do a very good job of developing Rey into an offensive player,’’ said Valentine. “Maybe I can learn from what I didn’t do. That was a challenge, to try and get offensive production out of Rey Ordonez, no doubt.
“Rey was not a very receptive person. Rey didn’t adapt, didn’t receive well. It seems Jose might be a little different than that.’’
Iglesias asserts that is indeed the case.
“I know Rey and he was a great player,’’ said Iglesias. “I’ve talked to him before and I admire what he did. But I’m my own man, my own person. I’m going to make myself a better player. I want to get better every day.’’
Iglesias is excited to get to know Valentine better and prove himself. Yesterday’s workout was just the start.
“Every single year, I work to be the shortstop for this organization,’’ he said. “That’s really what I want.
“Bobby is going to be fun to play for. He’s smart and he wants the best for everybody. It’s going to be a good spring training. I’m going to have fun.’’