Jose Iglesias And Player Aging

When the Red Sox dealt Marco Scutaro this past winter, there were many theories propounded as to why. Some thought the Sox were on the verge of getting a big name pitcher and needed the money under the luxury tax threshold. They didn't. Some speculated the Sox were about to grab a big name shortstop like Hanley Ramirez. The weren't. As your grandfather has probably told you over and over again in between puffs on his pipe, sometimes the simplest idea is the correct one. In this instance it seems that scenario is playing out.

If at this time last season someone has proposed the Red Sox would go into this season with Mike Aviles as their starting shortstop, they'd have been laughed off the internet. Yet here we are, Marco Scutaro is gone and Mike Aviles is first on the major league depth chart. So, what can we take away from that? The Sox really believe in Mike Aviles, probably much more than we thought when he was acquired from Kansas City last year and much more than we thought after Marco Scutaro received his one-way plane ticket to Colorado.

While I think that is all true, I've left someone out: Jose Iglesias.

You could be forgiven for not thinking much of a player who hit .235/.285/.269 last season in AAA. That kind of performance doesn't scream 'major league ready' to anyone who... well, to anyone at all, actually.

As we've covered before here at OTM and as I've written elsewhere, Iglesias possesses other-worldly defensive ability. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has called him the best defensive shortstop in the minor leagues. Not to put words in Mr. Goldstein's mouth, but with shortstop being the most difficult position to play (I'm leaving pitcher and catcher off this list) it doesn't take much extrapolation to see Iglesias as the best defensive player in the minor leagues.

His defensive skills were ready for the big leagues yesterday, but as I hope I've shown by posting his hitting stats from last year (a .554 OPS) the bat is lagging well behind the glove. That makes the recent comments by manager Bobby Valentine all the more curious. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe quotes Valentine as saying the following of Iglesias:

"He’s pretty close," Valentine said. "We’ve seen a lot. Now it’s a determination of whether or not it’s his time. I think he’s played pretty well and showed some really good progress. We have to decide whether he’s had enough undergraduate credentials in order to take the next step forward.

He's pretty close? The guy in question posted a .554 OPS in AAA last year. So, simple question, what gives?

Of course there are several possibilities. Valentine is messing with us. Remember this is a guy who was thrown out of a game and sneaked back into the dugout in dark sunglasses and a fake mustache. He also claims to have invented the wrap. So it's possible.

More likely though, the Red Sox are actually considering using Iglesias in the majors. Brian MacPherson made a convincing case in the Providence Journal a few days ago for the Red Sox to keep Iglesias in the big leagues to open the year. Short version: they could do it because Carl Crawford will likely start the season on the DL and Iglesias is one of the only useful options that won't necessitate messing with the 40 man roster and thus having to pass players through waivers. While that's all true, it isn't quite what Valentine was hinting at. To me it what Valentine was saying was that Iglesias might be ready to take over the starting shortstop job.

We know he can handle it defensively, but the question dogging Iglesias is can he hit? Opinions are split on the topic. It isn't hard to look at his minor league track record and think, 'nope.' It's true that outside of some very small samples he hasn't hit yet as a pro. But here's the thing: last year when he had that putrid offensive performance in AAA, Iglesias was 21 years old. The average player in AAA between 2007 and 2011 was 26.7 years old according to Baseball America. Over that same time period the average age in AA was 24.5 years old. It was 23.0 in high A, and low A was 21.8. Yes, last year, Jose Iglesais spent the year in AAA and the majors while being younger than the average low A player.

Sure there are older players at some of the levels that drag the average up, but the point is, even had the Sox sent Iglesias to AA, he'd have been about three years younger than the average competition. In fact, if you look at Iglesias's minor league record, he began 2010 in low A Lowell and (in a very small sample, but these are all small samples) posted a .958 OPS there.

This isn't to suggest that Iglesias is really an amazing hitting talent, but it does mean that he has played at levels well above where a player his age might normally play. Is that really important? Absolutely. Think about it this way. Imagine if you were playing little league ball as a 12 year old and your coach came to you and said, "Bobby, we're moving you up to the high school's Junior Varsity team. Good luck." That isn't far off from what Iglesias had to deal with.

As we get older our skills continue to develop. A baseball player's skills tend to continue improving up until around age 27 and then things (on average) start to go the other way. As player aging studies have shown, development is especially evident in younger players. That's why player age is so vitally important in the minor leagues, it's why a player lying about his age is such a serious concern, and it's why Jose Iglesias's hitting to date isn't necessarily as huge a flaw as you might have heard.

Scouting reports tell us Iglesias won't ever hit for much power. He's not that big or strong and though he could get stronger, he's likely to remain a slap or, at best, spray hitter whose power comes from occasional doubles. There's nothing wrong with that, especially tied to a player of his defensive abilities. The problem comes when those doubles don't show up, and what's left is a bunch of weak grounders. Some will find their way through the infield, but if that was his final offensive skill set, it would be tough to envision him getting regular playing time at the big league level for any team, let alone the Red Sox.

But Iglesias's age tells us that he's not done improving and in fact there very well could be some big leaps ahead on his developmental path. That doesn't mean he's ready to take over the starting shortstop gig right now. Mike Aviles has had a fine spring and everything seems to point towards the job being his, at least initially.

After last season, many scouts and analysts are down on Iglesias, questioning his ability to hit enough to become a major league regular. Last season Iglesias was first on Baseball Prospectus's list of top 11 Red Sox prospects. This year he's tenth. There is reason to be concerned, but things aren't necessarily as bad as they might seem. There is lots of room for Iglesias to grow but, as a player about to enter his age-22 season, there is lots of time for him to do that growing. Whether it's at the major league level or not I can't say for sure, but the fact that the Red Sox obviously believe in him should say something.

Mike Aviles will probably be the starting shortstop on Opening Day, but don't sleep on Jose Iglesias. He has much more developmental time left than an average AAA player, and for a player who just needs to achieve adequacy at the plate to be a big asset to his team, that should be a comforting thought.

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