Smooth start for Jose Iglesias
Red Sox shortstop prospect fitting in on and off the field
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jose Iglesias was standing at his locker in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse at the player development complex Monday morning when trainer Brad Pearson walked by.
Just as Iglesias would chase down a slow roller, Boston's top shortstop prospect sprang from his stall, grabbed Pearson by the hand and dragged him over to the wall where the lineup cards for Wednesday's doubleheader against Northeastern and Boston College were hanging.
Iglesias pointed right to his name.
Pearson looked. After a brief moment he realized Iglesias' name was spelled wrong. A member of the Boston media took his pen and fixed the typo. Iglesias nodded in appreciation. It was obviously just a mistake, because the Red Sox coaching staff fully understands who this kid is and what his potential contributions to the organization could be in the very near future.
It was probably the first time that any rookie prospect, especially a player as young as Iglesias, has ever spoken up about something like that. Case in point: Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon began his pro career with Single-A Lowell in 2003, and for the next two years the organization always referred to him as Jon Papelbon. It wasn't until he reached Triple-A Pawtucket in 2005 that he asked to be called Jonathan.
And now this 20-year-old Cuban shortstop is already pointing out simple mistakes.
Iglesias is just a highly energetic kid. He walks around the clubhouse, putting his arm around veteran players such as Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Marco Scutaro and Victor Martinez. Iglesias even jokes with his fellow prospects like they've been teammates for 10 years.
No one thinks twice about his outgoing personality.
Iglesias is a Cuban defector with stunning defensive abilities. Once Major League Baseball declared him a free agent last summer, the Red Sox quickly signed him to an $8.25 million contract.
He's already been impressive during spring training, both on and off the field, and now that he's in the United States as a multimillion-dollar professional athlete, there's only one thing he wants to accomplish: He wants to play shortstop for the Boston Red Sox as soon as possible.
He's very confident in all of his abilities, but the one thing he'll shy away from is a one-on-one interview. He speaks English well enough to carry on a conversation, but he doesn't want anything lost in translation.
When he was asked how bad he wants to play at Fenway Park for the Red Sox, he asked relief pitcher Manny Delcarmen to translate his answer.
"It's been my dream and I'm going to give it 100 percent to try to get there, and stay there," said Iglesias, with the help of Delcarmen.
Then Iglesias wanted to talk about his smooth transition during spring training because of the family-style environment.
"It's been a wonderful experience because [of] the way the guys treat me. I feel like I'm at home," he said. "David [Ortiz] is making me feel very welcome."
He's so confident and comfortable he says he hasn't felt any growing pains -- yet.
"Not really. I do feel like I'm at home and I'm really comfortable," he said. "I feel like I've been playing with these guys for a couple of years. My confidence level is really high and I feel good."
With that, Iglesias thanked Delcarmen for serving as his translator, but not before Delcarmen jokingly asked for a fee.
It's been very important for the Red Sox to make sure their shortstop of the future is well-protected and comfortable off the field because that will help his production on the diamond. So the organization decided it would be best to have Red Sox staff assistant Alex Ochoa take Iglesias under his wing for the 2010 season. Ochoa, who was born and raised in Miami, is of Cuban decent and played eight years in the majors.
When Ochoa was told during the offseason that his role would be to mentor Iglesias, he knew it would be a positive experience for both of them. After the Red Sox signed the shortstop, they decided to send him to the Arizona Fall League to get some much-needed experience since he hadn't played in a competitive game in more than a year, while he remained in the Dominican Republic, awaiting word from MLB.
The day after Iglesias made his fall league debut, he and Ochoa sat in the dugout for the next game as a learning tool. Ochoa pointed out different aspects of the game, making sure Iglesias knew to run out every ball and not lollygag on and off the field.
"I was giving him examples of what not to do and he's responded to them," said Ochoa. "He's going to have bumps in the road; he's only 20 and we have to realize that he's a young kid who was given a lot of money, so he's going to have ups and downs. But he's a smart kid and he gets stuff really quick."
Ochoa will remain with Iglesias for the first month of the regular season, and anytime he gets promoted to the next level. Ochoa will be there to make sure the transition to pro ball goes smoothly.
"He's been awesome," said Iglesias. "The hardest thing is the language, and I'm trying to learn little by little. Alex has been a really big help for me."
"He's a smart kid, a great kid with a lot of energy," said Ochoa. "He loves to play the game and has a lot of passion to get better every day. He's flashy, and you can tell that right off the bat, but it's in a good nature. His confidence level is really good. For the most part, he's just a great kid."
Ochoa's role is to teach the prospect how to play the North American game, and teach him the culture, as well.
"Basically teach him how to play here, and the difference between Cuba and here," said Ochoa. "I know the difference and how they play because I'm Cuban and I grew up in the Cuban community and [have] friends who defected. And I know the style of play. They play with a lot of style in Cuba and the fans love it. Here is more reserved, but that's not to say guys here can't be flashy. We want guys to be consistent, play the game the right way and respect your teammates. I'll be teaching him that kind of stuff. We won't take away from how he plays, because you don't want to limit him. You want him to feel comfortable, as well."
It's clear Iglesias shows no fear around his teammates. At one point Monday morning, he went over to Scutaro's locker, took his sunglasses with built-in headphones, and began dancing right in front of the veteran shortstop. Scutaro just smiled.
"He just loves to play the game and wants to be a major leaguer so bad," said Ochoa. "He feels comfortable and he knows he's confident in his skills. He still has stuff to learn, but he's really confident what he can do and that's what makes him comfortable around the guys. Also, he wants to be around those guys because he wants to learn and see what they do and how they interact. He specifically wanted to meet Pedroia for the longest time. He just wants to learn how the big leaguers do it. "
It's common to see Iglesias hanging around Pedroia, who is more than willing to help out any way he can. The All-Star second baseman already knows the two will be double-play partners sooner rather than later.
"He's got great hands," said Pedroia. "Defensively, he's one of the best I've seen. He's got really good hands, he has an idea and really knows the game. He's really young, so I think the experience is the best thing for him. He's going to be fine."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona is not one to publicly praise any young player. His common line is, "Let's not put them in the Hall of Fame just yet." But when asked to give his thoughts on Iglesias, Francona didn't hesitate.
"The thing that sticks out right away are his hands," said Francona. "He's very flashy. It'll be really fun to watch him play. The player you see this week won't be the player you see a couple of years from now. It'll be fun to watch him refine what he's doing. He's rapidly learning, not only our game, but our culture too. He's getting a lot thrown at him real quick."
The Red Sox haven't decided at what level Iglesias will start the season when camp breaks. Management and baseball operations will wait to evaluate his spring training.
During the first week of camp, Iglesias has been working out with other minor leaguers in the Red Sox system. Gil Velazquez, 30, has been a career minor leaguer, with only nine games in the majors with the Red Sox in the past two seasons. He's been taking ground balls alongside Iglesias and has already given the prospect some advice.
"He's got the tools and definitely the spark. He's got all the energy in the world. He definitely has a bright future with a good head on his shoulders," said Velazquez. "He's a good kid."
Velazquez didn't know much about Iglesias before the Red Sox signed him. During workouts in the last week, time and again Iglesias has flashed the leather and showcased his Latin flair with no-look throws and fancy glove work.
"I also talked to him a little bit about that because he was getting a little out of hand with it," said Velazquez. "I was trying to get him to understand that they want you to get the routine plays. If you get a little too fancy, sometimes you'll start messing up. He had one day where he was trying to get a little too fancy and was messing up a lot, so I just wanted him to understand."
What impressed Velazquez even more was the way Iglesias took the constructive criticism.
"He took it really good, and that's the one thing I really like about him. He'll listen to anybody and he doesn't disrespect. He takes it all in and the next day he actually took [my advice] into play. That's a good sign of a kid who is willing to listen, learn and get better."
While he's known for his defensive prowess, the Red Sox want Iglesias to work on his offense.
Victor Martinez and Iglesias stood around the batting cage on Sunday morning, talking about big league pitchers and how to be successful in the majors. The veteran told him to use all the resources at his disposal in order to improve offensively, including video and scouting reports.
"He's a kid who really wants to play," said Martinez. "You can see the fire and desire he's got to play the game, and that's where everything starts."
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
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