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Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Will Jose Iglesias drive fans batty?

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

Jose Iglesias finally got regular playing time at the end of 2012. The result was one of the worst offensive stints in Boston Red Sox history.

Iglesias hit .118, striking out in 24 percent of his at-bats.

That's the second-lowest batting average by a nonpitcher in franchise history (minimum 75 plate appearances). You have to go back 81 years to Ed Connolly's .075 average to find the only offensive display that was feebler.

Iglesias hit .031 (1-for-32) with men on base, the lowest average for any nonpitcher over the past 30 years (minimum 30 PA).

Statistically, the most similar hitter to Iglesias last season was Diamondbacks pitcher Trevor Cahill. In fact, if Iglesias were a pitcher, he would have ranked 25th in batting average out of the 49 with at least 50 plate appearances.

Needless to say, significant questions remain about Iglesias' ability to take over as Boston's starting shortstop in 2013.

Admittedly, this was a small sample size. If Iglesias had somehow hit .350, most would cite the limited number of plate appearances to discount its significance. To an extent, the same can be said about his poor performance.

Iglesias is better than a .118 hitter. But how much better? Would replicating his Pawtucket numbers (.266 BA, .624 OPS) provide adequate enough offense to keep his stellar defense on the field?

Iglesias' defense was better than advertised. Given the lofty expectations, that's no small feat.

In 10 years of data, his 49.8 UZR/150 is unprecedented for an infielder with at least 150 innings under his belt.

Iglesias managed seven defensive runs saved in just over 193 innings at shortstop. Consider that Seattle's Brendan Ryan was far and away the MLB leader at the position with 27 DRS, despite over 1,000 more innings.

All small sample size caveats once again apply, even more so than usual. Proper defensive analysis requires multiple seasons of data. But even a fraction of that defensive prowess would be eye-popping.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Iglesias could be the best defensive shortstop in Red Sox history. But can his bat keep him in the lineup?

The best current comparison would be Ryan. The Mariners' shortstop blew away his competition in just about every defensive metric.

In fact, Ryan might be the best defensive player in the game, and he's arguably the worst on offense. Realistically, this may be what the Red Sox have in Iglesias.

Ryan hit just .194 for the Mariners, and his .555 OPS ranked last in the majors among those with 450 plate appearances.

Despite atrocious offense, Ryan's defense made him one of the most valuable shortstops in the majors. His 3.3 WAR (wins above replacement) ranked fourth in the majors at the position. He would have been the second most valuable player on the Red Sox based on that number.

Even if you don't quite buy into how that metric measures overall value, it's pretty clear that Ryan's defense more than outweighs his offense.

It may take some getting used to, but Iglesias could hit under .200 and still be Boston's best option at shortstop.

Defensive metrics admittedly are imperfect. But that works in both directions. There's no proper way to measure an elite shortstop's impact on a pitching staff. No modern shortstop has had a better defensive reputation than Rey Ordonez, who had a .600 career OPS. So was he worth it?

"From a pitcher's perspective, elite shortstops don't just help your pitch count," said Orel Hershiser, who played with defensive wizards like Ordonez, Omar Vizquel and Alfredo Griffin during his career. "All of the stressful pitches and emotional damage they prevent go a long, long way."

SportsNation

What would Iglesias need to hit for you to be comfortable with him as the Red Sox shortstop in 2013?

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After the past month, it's not clear that Iglesias can provide even the limited offense of Ordonez or Ryan.

He's still just 22, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to send him back to Pawtucket for more offensive seasoning.

If that happens, Boston has internal options in Mike Aviles and Pedro Ciriaco.

Aviles was one of the team's best players in April with five home runs and 17 RBIs. But he faded as the season went on, hitting .232 with a .610 OPS in the second half. His solid defense makes him a suitable backup plan for the Red Sox.

Ciriaco was one of the few pleasant surprises of 2012, emerging as a fan favorite thanks to his hot start and .415 batting average against the New York Yankees. But it's worth noting that he hit just .261 against everyone else. Little in Ciriaco's track record points to sustained offensive success.

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has adequate alternatives if Iglesias gets the job and fails. But with payroll flexibility, he may have his eyes on upgrades at the position.

The free-agent market provides little chance for Boston to throw around its newfound salary flexibility.

Faced with the same lackluster options, the Detroit Tigers figure to pick up Jhonny Peralta's $6 million option. That would leave Stephen Drew ($10 million mutual option) and Marco Scutaro as the only viable options.

One of this season's best deadline acquisitions, Scutaro seems likely to continue his renaissance in San Francisco.

Would the Red Sox take a chance on another Drew brother who can't stay healthy? Stephen hasn't played 90 games in either of the past two seasons. He's only 29, which makes it likely that some team will gamble on him returning to form. But it's not clear Drew is a significant upgrade over Boston's in-house candidates.

Any big splash at shortstop would have to come from the trade market, which figures to be active. Yunel Escobar may have worn out his welcome in Toronto. The Baltimore Orioles may trade J.J. Hardy to open up the position for Manny Machado. But both teams might be reluctant to deal with a divisional rival.

All of that leads to the clear-cut prize: Elvis Andrus.

Would the Texas Rangers really trade arguably the best shortstop in the game at age 24?

With top prospect Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings, it figures to be one of the hot topics of the offseason. A more realistic option for Texas is status quo for another season.

Regardless, it's doubtful Boston could put together an attractive enough offer to secure Andrus. Now that he's an impending free agent, the ship has probably sailed on Jacoby Ellsbury as the centerpiece to such a deal.

Given the lack of viable alternatives, the stage is set for Boston to hand the key to Iglesias.

It's time to see just how valuable a defensive whiz can be.