In February 2011, Fangraph's Marc Hulet named Jose Iglesias the Red Sox's #1 prospect and projected him as a future 4-WAR major league shortstop. For context, five shortstops produced a WAR of 4.x in 2011: Alexei Ramirez, JJ Hardy, Elvis Andrus, Yunel Escobar, and Erick Aybar. Only three shortstops in all of baseball produced higher WAR values than those five guys. In other words, Hulet projected Iglesias as a Top 5 to Top 10 shortstop in the MLB. In other, other words: Yes, please!
In December 2011, Hulet revised his prospect list for the Sox. Just nine months after naming Iglesias #1, Hulet placed him completely out of the top ten, noting that he "could be headed for a career similar to Cesar Izturis." For context, while Izturis did produce one freak 4-WAR season in 2004 (I'll come back to this season in a bit), that one year accounts for almost the entirety of his production as a player. He has rarely broken 1 WAR and has produced three negative WAR seasons. In his ten-year career, he's produced a TOTAL of 5.7 WAR. In other words: No, thank you.
What happened in those nine months to so limit Iglesias's value? The answer is simple: 380 AAA at-bats happened. Iglesias spent his 2011 minor league season hitting like a pitcher: .235/.285/.269. That's not a typo: He slugged .269. It's not hard to see why Hulet fell out of love, and I've seen similar sentiments in the comments here at OTM -- many of them even more negative than Hulet's. Considering it's almost time for OTM to revise its own prospect list, I wanted to take a moment to argue a position that may seem untenable considering the line I just quoted (did I mention he slugged .269 last year?). Nonetheless, here I go: Jose Iglesias is the most underrated prospect in the Red Sox system.
Mike Newman of Scouting the Sally has argued repeatedly that the most overlooked factor in prospect evaluation is age in relation to level. It's self-evident that we should judge a 25-year-old minor leaguer differently than a 22-year-old minor leaguer, but it's easy to lose sight of how important that age difference is when our favorite prospect starts slugging .269. Let's look at the average age of players at different levels of MiLB:
Rookie ball: 19
We have to be careful with that AAA value because many players in AAA are career minor leaguers as opposed to prospects, and we'd like, if possible, to always be comparing prospects to prospects. Nevertheless, and this is really the most obvious but also the most important point that I'm making: Jose Iglesias just completed his age 21 season. That abysmal .235/.285/.269 line was put up in a league where the average player was seven years his senior. Iglesias was even rushed to a major league call-up at a time when most of his contemporaries were playing A ball.
It's well-known that Theo Epstein's front office made it a kind of policy to challenge prospects by playing them above their level (see: Casey Kelly, 2010). Let's set aside the pros and cons of this and do a thought experiment. In 2010, in his age 20 season, Iglesias received 250 AA at-bats (again, a league whose players average 24 years of age) and hit .285/.315/.357. Let's imagine that rather than rushing him to AAA (and to the majors!) the following year, the Sox did the more typical thing and left him at AA. In fact, in his February 2011 rankings, Hulet guessed just that and assumed Iglesias would play another year in AA. Now, let's say with another year at the same level, Iglesias shows improvement in contact and pitch selection, but, to avoid being overly rosy, we'll say he doesn't get any stronger. So now we have a 21-year-old in AA who's widely considered one of the best defensive prospects in the game at a premium position hitting, let's say, .300/.330/.357. Are you moving that prospect out of the Top 10? Out of the Top 5? I think you'd have to be insane to do either.
You could argue with me here by saying that even my modest imagined improvement for him is unrealistic. Why should I expect him to improve his contact and walk rates when he shows so little offensive ability? The answer is that I would expect him to do it because he already has. That embarrassing AAA line masks a 2% improvement in his walk rate and an almost 6% drop in his K%. Despite the overly aggressive promotion, his pitch recognition markedly improved. His BABIP did drop significantly partly due to bad luck and partly due to his lack of power, but again: he was a raw 21-year-old playing well above his level.
So what do I think we should expect from Jose Iglesias, major leaguer? First, I should mention that Iglesias's offensive struggles are common for his position. It's simply incredibly hard to find shortstops who can do anything of value with the stick. The overall line for all shortstops in 2011 was only .258/.314/.370 (wOBA .303, wRC+ 88). Second, I should mention that I'm assuming Iglesias will be one of the top defensive shortstops in the game. I can't, of course, know this, but that's how it goes in prospect evaluation. Regardless, I have yet to find a single report of his defense that isn't glowing, and we've all seen the highlights. He's special with the glove.
I mentioned Cesar Izturis's 4-WAR 2004 season. That year, he hit .288/.330/.384 -- hardly out of reach for Iglesias --with a +14 fielding. Now, that's an insanely high defensive score. Alexei Ramirez topped the 2011 list with a +11.9 Fld. We can't expect +14 for Iglesias regularly, but it seems realistic to project him as a consistent +10. Let's stay on Alexei for a bit: he put up a lovely 4.9 WAR with that fielding score and a line of .269/.328/.399 -- hardly an offensive powerhouse. If you believe Iglesias's contact ability can keep him near .280-.300 with an OBP close to Alexei's and Izturis's and if you believe he'll be an elite defensive player, you've got a shortstop who's going to give you around 3.5-4.5 WAR per year, with adjustments as necessary based on whether he adds power (I think he will) and on his baserunning (which should be above average). There's no guarantees, of course. He could flop entirely. But players like Iglesias don't grow on trees.
To sum it up, Marc Hulet was perhaps right all along: Jose Iglesias may indeed become Cesar Izturis, only that's 2004 Cesar Izturis, one of the best shortstops in baseball. Iglesias may have been overrated to begin with, but he's now the most underrated player in our system.