FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jose Iglesias was home in Miami getting ready to celebrate the holidays with his family when he learned the Red Sox had signed Stephen Drew to play shortstop.
There would be no competition for a position Iglesias thought he would be given a chance to earn. Drew’s $9.5 million deal essentially guaranteed his playing time.
Merry Christmas. Here’s a trip back to the minors.
“I had no idea,” Iglesias said Thursday. “I found out about it in the media, reading the paper. I didn’t hear from them what their decision was going to be. It just happened. But I took it as a challenge. What else could I do?”
So much has changed for Iglesias since he arrived from Cuba in 2009. Once the shortstop of the future for the Red Sox, the 23-year-old is now trapped behind Drew while a gang of talented prospects, led by Xander Bogaerts, seeks to push him out of the way.
As he builds a fulfilling life in America with his fiancée and 2-year-old son, Iglesias is still searching for his place in baseball after four years with the Red Sox.
“I believe in him — heck, yeah, I do,” said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who over the winter invited Iglesias to his home in Arizona for four days of workouts. “Put yourself in his shoes. He didn’t know English when he came to the United States. No family here, no friends here, nothing.
“It’s pretty darn tough. He should be proud of the way he’s responded so far. He’s got a lot of baseball left.”
Iglesias is a remarkable defensive player, so talented that Baseball Prospectus recently named him the best infielder in all the minor leagues.
“He has the ability to make the routine plays look mundane but can then leave you in awe as he makes the spectacular plays seem far too simple,” the publication wrote. “Iglesias is an elite defender and there really isn’t anyone close to him in the minor leagues.”
Said Pedroia, “He could be a perfect defender. I’m serious.”
But a weak bat has kept Iglesias from becoming an everyday player. He hit .135 in 35 major league games over the last two seasons and .264 with a low .626 OPS in three seasons in the minors.
Iglesias had only 11 extra-base hits in 353 at-bats for Triple A Pawtucket last season. As good as he is defensively, the Red Sox felt they couldn’t hide his bat in the lineup.
“It takes time,” Pedroia said. “He has the hand-eye coordination that will allow him to put the bat on the ball. People say he can’t hit. But how many at-bats has he had in the minors?”
Good question. Iglesias has played 261 games in the minors and had 1,076 plate appearances. To put that in perspective, Pedroia played in 270 minor league games and had 1,216 plate appearances before he stuck with the Red Sox.
Pedroia also had the advantage of playing three seasons at Arizona State, a premier college program, and played 42 games at two levels of Single A ball and 66 games for Double A Portland before he was promoted to Triple A Pawtucket.
Iglesias played only 13 games of Rookie League ball in 2010 before the Sox pushed him to Portland for 57 games.
He started the next season at Pawtucket. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Iglesias has hit .251 in Triple A with a .589 OPS given his quick route there.
“To start at the level he started at, he kind of missed out on some things that other players go through and he missed that learning curve,” said Red Sox first base coach Arnie Beyeler, who managed Iglesias in Portland in 2010 and the last two seasons at Pawtucket.
“Because he was so gifted when he arrived, he got to skip some of that stuff and we forget about that. Sometimes that comes back on you in the long run.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell was asked whether Iglesias being rushed affected his offensive development.
“That’s a very debatable point,” he said. “I don’t know that you can pinpoint any one year as the reason why maybe the offensive side hasn’t developed as quick as the defensive side.”
Contact is better
Iglesias believes his problem has been an inconsistent approach. For two seasons, he changed his swing regularly before settling on a more balanced, upright stance that gives him a better view of the ball.
Iglesias also added 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason.
“It’s all in my mind, and I’m more positive now,” he said. “I believe in the process. I’m not going to change because I had a bad game; that’s just baseball. My first two years, it seemed like I did something new every day, and that’s not good.”
The new approach did not pay off statistically last season. But Iglesias has four doubles and a home run in 31 at-bats during spring training this year and is making consistently better contact.
One of the doubles came Thursday in a 7-3 victory against the Twins. He lined out in his two other at-bats.
“I think he’s starting to figure some things out,” Farrell said.
Now it has to translate to production. Iglesias is expected to start the season at Pawtucket but could get pushed by Bogaerts, a talented 20-year-old who is the organization’s best prospect.
The Sox also have Deven Marrero, their 22-year-old first-round draft pick last June, and 19-year-old Jose Vinicio, who was signed to a $1.9 million bonus out of the Dominican Republic.
Another shortstop, 19-year-old Tzu-Wei Lin of Taiwan, was signed for $2.05 million last season.
“We have a lot of guys,” said Iglesias. “We have a lot of talent. I wish those guys well. I just know I need to work.”
The message is clear: Iglesias has competition, and the shortstop of the future is anybody’s job. Whatever assumptions Iglesias may have had about his career two years ago have vanished.
“You separate people that way and you see what people are made of,” said Beyeler. “That’s how the game works, you weed out people that way. But I think he’ll rise to the occasion. He understands.”
Said Farrell, “I think competition is the best thing that can happen to anybody. When you’ve got competition in a case like this, I think it makes everybody better and makes us a healthier organization.”
An uncertain future
Off the field, Iglesias has found peace after defecting from Cuba for the sake of his career.
His father, Candelario, has been in the United States for two years, and over the winter, Iglesias reconnected with his mother, Barbara, during a trip to Mexico.
“She was in Cuba and I didn’t see her for four years but we were able to meet for 10 days,” Iglesias said. “I missed her. She hasn’t even been able to see me play on television and she used to go to all my games when I was kid.”
Iglesias spends much of his time off the field with his son, Jose Jr.
“He needs a lot of attention, like his father,” Iglesias said. “He grabbed a bat the other day and hit some line drives. Now I have to do that.”
The Sox have not run out of patience with Iglesias. But the coming season will determine how deep that reservoir is. There could be a team out there willing to sacrifice his bat for the wonder of his glove.
“He has major league ability and I’m sure there’s going to come a time where he’s a very good major league player,” Farrell said.
Will that be with the Red Sox?
That Farrell paused for a few seconds before answering spoke to the degree of uncertainty surrounding Iglesias.
“It could very well be,” he finally said.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.