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Trying not to sell Jose Iglesias short

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 7, 2012 08:14 AM

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So you want Jose Iglesias to open the season as the Red Sox' shortstop, eh?

I get it. It's part of the charm of spring training, annually falling for some intriguing prospect or another. Sometimes it is even rewarded. Iglesias's glove does draw raves from anyone who has seen him, and watching him take infield practice is apparently becoming a trendy event in Fort Myers. Watching the flash and grace with which he plays the position, it's tough not to get caught up in that optimism of spring. Hyperbole? Why not: Is the 22-year-old Cuban with the magician's hands the next Omar Vizquel?

Well, maybe . . . at least if you're talking about the Vizquel who had a sub-.600 OPS for the first three seasons of his career with the Mariners. As spectacular as he was defensively then, I don't recall anyone ever mentioning him as a potential future Hall of Famer. The guy was traded for Felix Fermin (and Reggie Jefferson).

Maybe the Red Sox can get away with playing Iglesias and his weakling bat for a couple of seasons at shortstop, just as Seattle did with Vizquel in the late '80s. But I'm not convinced it's the right thing to do, and I don't think even Bobby Valentine's chatter will convince me. Iglesias hit .246, had a .289 on-base percentage, and slugged -- I should probably put that in quotes -- .310 last year at Pawtucket. He had one homer and 10 extra-base hits in 387 plate-appearances. His Triple-A OPS, .554, was .001 higher than Cesar Crespo's career major-league OPS. We did not much enjoy Cesar Crespo in these parts.

I'm not suggesting Iglesias is permanently hopeless at the plate. He turned 22 in January. He probably wasn't ready for Triple A last year, just his second year of pro ball. He battled injuries, including a concussion, and he was better in the second half than the first. But I can live with Mike Aviles at shortstop for the time being while Iglesias learns to hit International League pitching.

The player to whom he is most often compared is Rey Ordonez, whose entire Mets career (1996-2002) corresponded with Valentine's tenure as the manager. The comparison is accurate -- Ordonez's career line is .251/.289/.311, while Iglesias's ZiPS projection for '12 is a darned near identical .246/.289/.310.

(Hat tip to reader @sogrady for pointing that out awhile back.)

Comparing him to Ordonez is not a compliment. Other than producing more than his quota of breathtaking Web Gems and making three outs per game as a hitter on a good night, the worst Sports Illustrated centerfold ever is Ordonez's true legacy:

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(No, it won't ever get old. Ordonez couldn't look more uncomfortable if Derek Jeter offered him a gift basket.)

I do not want to watch the next Rey Ordonez -- Iglesias has to be better than that if he's going to play every day in the American League East. So in a quest to find some statistical or historical optimism about Iglesias's offensive potential, I dialed up my friend the B-R Play Index and took a look at some homegrown Red Sox shortstops over the past few decades to see how they produced in the minor leagues. They are in no particular order, and it includes only players who eventually had prominent roles with the Red Sox. So apologies are due to Steve Dillard, Julio Valdez, and Ed Jurak, who didn't make the cut. Maybe they'll get their chance in a Boston.com Obscure Red Sox Utility Players photo gallery one of these days . . .

Thumbnail image for gutierrezjackiefinn36.jpgJackie Gutierrez, 1983: A smooth-fielding, hey-what's-this-wooden-bat-like-thingy? type who would seem a decent comp for Iglesias. But Gutierrez, who proved a feeble hitter (.547 career OPS) during his six seasons (only two full) in the majors, was better at the plate in the minors than Iglesias was last year. At age 23, he went .272/.354/.353 between New Britain and Pawtucket. Such adequacy never translated to the big leagues, though, and he's best remembered by Red Sox fans for his loud whistling between pitches. Hey, it's better than not being remembered at all.

John Valentin, 1992: Good 'ol Sunshine, a player Sox fans seem to remember more fondly with each passing year. With a righthanded swing made for Fenway, Valentin developed big-time pop in the mid-'90s, clubbing 27 homers in 1995 and leading the AL in doubles (47) in 1997. But when he arrived in the bigs midway through the '92 season, there was little in his minor league track record to suggest he'd be that productive. At age 24 at Pawtucket, he hit nine homers in 388 plate appearances with a .260/.358/.402 line.

hoffmanglenn36finn.jpgGlenn Hoffman, 1980: Cannon arm, salami bat who made the Sox' Opening Day roster that spring after putting up .285/.332/.385 numbers at Pawtucket in '79. He was a genuine prospect, but you wonder, given the pitching success of his converted-shortstop kid brother, whether his career (.623 OPS in nine seasons) might have gone better had he been a pitcher.

Tim Naehring, 1990: Interesting to see John Castino on his career comp list -- that's exactly who he was. He could have been a cornerstone for a decade, but he suffered more injuries than a wild pack of Lowries. Went .269/.354/.486 with 15 homers in 290 at-bats at age 23 with Pawtucket before sticking with the Sox in '91. A .282 career hitter with a .785 OPS, an elbow injury ended his career in 1997 when he was just 30.

Jody Reed, 1987: Had no idea until I just checked out his baseball-reference page that he was 18th in the AL MVP voting in 1990. It's a nice reminder of what a quality player he was during his first four seasons with the Sox (1987-90), when he never had an adjusted OPS lower than 106 and led the majors in doubles in '90. He lost his range at short as he inexplicably decided to become more muscle-bound, and that wasn't even the worst career-altering decision he ever made. The 24-year-old's Pawtucket line: .296/.379/.388, 7 HRs in 510 at-bats.

quinonesrayfinn36.jpgRey Quinones, 1986: Ted Williams thought he was going to be a star, but he was a world-class knucklehead who spent all of 62 games with the Sox before going to Seattle in Lou Gorman's brilliant Spike Owen/Dave Henderson deal in August '86. Went .264/.333/.425 as a 22-year-old at Pawtucket that season, with four homers in 98 PAs before coming up to the Sox. Finished his wasted four-year career with a .243 average and a .644 OPS.

Nomar Garciaparra, 1996 There's a better chance Iglesias someday marries Anna Kournikova than there is of him replicating Nomar's career, obviously. If you want to compare vintage Nomar to a current Red Sox infielder, make it Pedroia. Their demeanor couldn't be more different, but they are fellow righthanded-hitting line-drive machines who captured the imagination of the faithful soon after arrival. In Nomar's final minor league action before becoming a Boston icon, he put up a hellacious .343/.387/.733 line for the PawSox at age 22, with 15 homers in 172 at-bats.

Jed Lowrie, 2008: It's easy to joke about how brittle he is, and there's a good chance he gets hurt before I complete this sentence. (Told you it was easy. Never said it was funny.) Dealt by the Red Sox to Houston in the Mark Melancon deal in the offseason, he's a savvy buy-low flier for the Astros. Before coming up to the Sox in '08, he hit .268/.359/.434 for the PawSox with five homers in 198 at-bats. He's a lifetime .252 hitter in the majors, but there's pop in that bat. Bet he puts it together in the dim lights of Houston.

Rick Burleson, 1974: The Rooster is probably exaggerated in our memories as an offensive player -- six times during his seven years with the Sox, his adjusted OPS was 93 or below. But he did hit .291 in '76, and he was a marvelous defender with the best arm of any Red Sox shortstop I've ever seen. In his final year with the PawSox, the 22-year-old went .252/.312/.335 with six homers in 531 plate appearances. Don't rush Iglesias; hope he can surpass those '74 Burleson numbers at Pawtucket this season. It's not out of the question that Iglesias can have a similar career to Burleson, and wouldn't we all be happy with that?

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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