Managing a non-controversy: How Red Sox are handling Jose Iglesias in Pawtucket

by: Alex Speier on Mon, 04/22/2013 - 7:36am

Game 1: With two outs and runners on second and third in the top of the fourth inning, a line drive screams up the middle, inching past the outstretched glove of Stephen Drew. Two runs score. Final score: Royals 4, Red Sox 2. Drew at the plate: 0-for-4, three strikeouts.

Game 2: Pedro Ciriaco dives into the hole to spear a grounder. But he rushes to his feet, never sets, uncorks a throw that sails into the stands. An unearned run scores on the Red Sox' first infield error of 2013. The Sox and Royals are deadlocked, 4-4, through nine innings before the Sox dropped the contest in the 10th by a 5-4 count. Ciriaco at the plate: 0-for-3, walk, strikeout.

Under the circumstances, the reaction is as inevitable as it is unfair. Any time game-changing defensive plays occur in which anyone but Jose Iglesias fails to convert an out, it becomes almost impossible not to wonder: Would Iglesias have made the play? Would he have caught the ball that Drew nearly reached? Would he have made the circus play that Ciriaco could not or, at the least, would he have avoided airmailing the throw over the dugout?

The questions are particularly pointed in light of the fact that Drew is off to a poor start at the plate. He's 3-for-30 with 12 strikeouts.

He has shown flashes of the all-around game that convinced the Sox to sign him this winter. Early last week, there was a game-changing defensive play in which he dove to his left and threw out a runner at first. He lofted a double off the Wall to the opposite field. On Sunday, he launched a rocket that looked like it might carry out to center field, only to run out of steam on the warning track on an afternoon where the ball had no carry.

But for now, there is an inevitability to the conversation surrounding the shortstop position: Iglesias hit .450 with otherworldly defense. Drew is hitting .100 while playing defense that grades as average to slightly above average. Painted in those broad brushstrokes (ones that ignore, for instance, the fact that the performances of the two shortstops represent limited samples, or the fact that most of Iglesias' hits in the big leagues were bunts or infield choppers, or that, back in Pawtucket, Iglesias is hitting .206 with a .270 OBP -- albeit with two homers and two doubles), it's natural to conclude that the Red Sox' best shortstop is currently in Triple-A.

So let's get this out of the way: There is no shortstop controversy in Boston and has never been since the day the Sox signed Drew. Even now, with the 30-year-old off to a bleak start after returning from a concussion, the Red Sox have faith in the track record, the swing and the offensive approach that convinced them to sign him to a one-year, $9.5 million deal. That won't change on the basis of nine games of struggles, particularly given that the team does not see any cause for alarm in his offensive approach.

"You don't see [Drew] missing pitches or lunging or missing pitches by wide margins by any means," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "We'll stay with him."

Indeed they will. That being the case, it is not worth rehashing the pros and cons of calling up Iglesias. It's not happening, at least at this stage of the year.

Instead, the interesting element that the Sox must confront is the fact that the line of inquiry -- Iglesias or Drew? -- is natural not just for fans or members of the media but for Iglesias himself. The fact of being sent down after a run of success in the big leagues can be a difficult thing around which to wrap one's head. It is natural for Iglesias -- who helped the Sox get off to a 5-2 start before he was optioned in deference to Drew -- to stew a bit, to see that the veteran has yet to represent an upgrade over what he delivered.

And so, the Red Sox confront something that can be a challenging task with Iglesias: Keeping him in a positive frame of mind that permits him to continue his development and to build on the foundation he laid to start the year rather than letting frustration affect his work negatively. It is a task that falls primarily to Gary DiSarcina, Iglesias' manager in Triple-A Pawtucket and the man who functions, in some respects, as the organization's gatekeeper between Triple-A and the majors.

It's not DiSarcina's decision, of course, to figure out who goes up and who goes down. But he serves as the messenger, the one who stands in front of the gate or who opens it to permit the players in Pawtucket to make their way up to the big league roster, and he offers feedback to the player as well as members of the organization -- Farrell and his staff in Boston, GM Ben Cherington and other members of the front office and player development staff -- about Iglesias' readiness.

It was in that spirit that DiSarcina approached Iglesias last week. After he'd been sent down following the Red Sox' home opener, DiSarcina gave Iglesias space -- a bit more than a week -- to adjust to life back in Pawtucket, a familiar location as the shortstop is now in his third year with the PawSox, before sitting down with Iglesias in his office last Wednesday for a candid conversation meant to frame expectations and keep the young player focused on advancing his game.

"The way I've approached Iggy is, have a little patience with him, give him a few days to come back down to earth and realize where he is. He's not on a rehab assignment. He's on the Triple-A team to get his at-bats. He's with us. He's not like David Ortiz where he's going to be going whenever he's physically ready," said DiSarcina. "I like to give him a couple days to come back down to earth, figure out what's going on. I called Iggy in here [Wednesday] and we had a conversation about what is he doing up there, why were you so successful up there. I wasn't there. I didn't see what he was doing. I didn't see a bunt. I didn't see the types of hits he got. I need to get feedback from him -- what his routine was with [third base and infield coach] Brian Butterfield -- listen to what he's talking about, listen to what he's saying.

"Because at the same time, I'm reading him -- if he has an inflated ego about himself, then it's going to come out. It's really difficult when someone has success and they're sent down, you can't sugarcoat anything. You got sent down. There's very few Bledsoe/Bradys going on, where Drew Bledsoe got hurt, he's down, he expects to get his job back but Tom Brady never gave it back. Stephen Drew was signed here to play. He's getting a lot of money to come over here and play for a year. It's difficult, but it goes back to communication and talking.

"You can say to a player, 'Hey man, it's a raw deal. You're getting a raw deal. You went up there, you did what you're supposed to do and you exceeded expectations. But reality is reality. You're here now. And we're going to work to get you out of here. We're here for you -- the hitting coach, the pitching coach, myself, the trainer -- we're here to get you out of here. Use us.' "

Part of the message relates to remaining goal-oriented, talking to Iglesias about turning himself into a player who can prove he belongs in the big leagues for the long-term rather than just representing a strong depth option who can fill in for six games at a time.

And part of the conversation is a reminder that a player is capable of making his own opportunities. Even if there is not a clear and direct path to Boston, if a player like Iglesias builds upon his brief stretch of big league success with a similarly strong performance in the minors, then be it in Boston or somewhere else, he'll be playing shortstop in the big leagues.

"They know. They're not stupid. They read the rosters. They know who's hitting what ahead of them. They're so damn close to being in the big leagues that, if you're going to sit at this desk and sling them crap, they're not going to respect you and you're going to lose credibility," said DiSarcina. "Just flat-out tell them -- great job. You did a great job up there. But reality's reality. Stephen Drew's ready and you're here now.

"With Jose, he's been great. He's had a good attitude coming down. But you've got to give them their space for a couple days. Let them process where they are. It's a big change going from Fenway Park and Opening Day to Pawtucket for a noon game -- the surroundings, your teammates are different, everything is different. I'm a big believer in having some patience, give them a couple days to process it and relax, be pissed off -- we all are; we've all been sent down and been aggravated -- but when we have our conversation, you've got to be honest.

"You can't say, 'You did a great job up there and you got hosed.' You've got to say, 'You did great, but there's only one shortstop job up there. So you're here now. We have to prepare you, whether there's an injury or a trade or you might get traded, come down here with a good attitude.' The goal for these guys is ultimately to play in the big leagues. You want them to play in the big leagues with Boston, win a World Series with Boston, but that's not how it is all the time."

DiSarcina considers honesty and candor the foundation for a productive relationship between a Triple-A manager and player, even as he tries to avoid dwelling on a player's faults.

"You never want to throw in a player's face what his weaknesses are," he said. "You encourage them to come out for work, say, 'Hey, let's go work on this,' " he said. "Players are different nowadays. This isn't back 30 years ago where you could be rough and gruff with their guys, get in their faces and say, 'You need to work on this,' have that stern attitude.

"When the players realize you're in it for them, just trying to get them to the big leagues with no other agenda, they'll come out and work on their weaknesses because they feel a connection to you and they feel the organization wants them to do well. It's not just to get to Boston. Ultimately, what we want to do is to get these guys to the big leagues. It may be with the Dodgers. It may be with someone else. But if they feel you're in it for them, they'll come out and work on anything, so long as you're coming from a genuine place."

And that genuine place includes permitting a player to air his grievances in the manager's office. Better for such frustrations to be aired to members of the coaching staff -- who can channel those sentiments into a commitment to work and to focus on areas for player development -- rather than leaving a player to behave like a malcontent among his peers.

"For us down here, it's for us to be there for these guys, be there for Jose, listen to him. If he's got a gripe and he wants to come in and vent, just shut your mouth and listen to him, because he has every right to gripe. He did a great job. But this is where he's at," said DiSarcina. "You have to speak to them. You can't just blow them off for three or four days and not say anything to them, let them swelter, let them become bitter and they start sniping and then we have a problem in the clubhouse because an important player is upset and bringing other people down.

"I'm not saying that happened with Iggy, but if you let it happen and you don't have communication with them, conversations with them, it can happen. So just, allow them to be themselves. Feel anger, feel upset. It's a natural emotion, but when they get over it, they finally realize, 'I've got to do my job here. If I'm going to get back there, I can't hit a buck-forty down here. I've got to do what I was doing on a regular basis in the big leagues down here.' That's really how you're judged -- how you come to the ballpark everyday, no matter where you are. If you come to the ballpark consistently playing hard everyday, doing what you're supposed to be doing, it will take care of itself. That's how you approach someone like Jose."

Right now, Iglesias is tantalizingly close. When he was in Boston, Farrell described him as having shown that he is ready to be a big league shortstop. That said, he's not a finished product.

Back in Pawtucket, he's hitting the ball with more consistent authority than he has in the past. It's telling that four of his seven hits have been for extra bases. That said, he's still hitting just .206 with a .270 on-base percentage while striking out eight times in 37 plate appearances and committing a couple of errors in nine games. There's work to be done to smooth the edges of his game.

After all, for all of the promise that Iglesias showed in his brief big league stint, he remains an unproven commodity. That is true at the major league level, where his six strong games this year came after a month's worth of struggles at the end of last year, and it is true of the minors, where the 23-year-old has offered inconsistent production on the field in no small part because frequent injuries have kept him off of it, limiting him to a career-high of 101 minor league contests.

At this point, Drew has a track record of production at the highest level. Iglesias does not, at least not yet. That is a large part of the reason why the younger shortstop is in Pawtucket.

"He's done a great job. He's come a long way," said DiSarcina, who was a roving infield instructor when he . "He had a great two weeks up there, but he has things to work on, too. He proved that he can hit up there offensively for a short stretch. But he's got to come down here and prove he can do it for a longer period of time, more consistently.

"We've still got to remind ourselves -- he doesn't have a lot of at-bats. He got hurt in Portland, had some issues -- got hit in the head here. So he's missed a good chunk of time. Sometimes, I think we look at him and we feel like he's been around forever, that he should be more advanced than he is. When in reality, he still doesn't have a ton of at-bats."

And so, Iglesias must continue to prove himself. The 20 at-bats he had in the big leagues this year did not accomplish that. They offered a strong first step, but now it's up to Iglesias to show that he was not merely enjoying a brief productive stretch that was and is out of line with who he is.

If he does that, then his return to the big leagues could come relatively soon. That is in keeping with the goals of not only the shortstop but of the coaching staff that is working with him in Triple-A.

"I want him out of here. That's the ultimate goal. You want him out of here. You want him in the big leagues," said DiSarcina. "Stephen Drew is there. But Stephen Drew is on a one-year deal. Stephen Drew might get hurt. At the July 31 trade deadline, somebody else might want Iggy. Somebody else might want Drew. You never know. You can't see into the future what's going to happen.

"It goes back to being ready -- having your skill set ready, working on your weaknesses, playing to your strengths and just plodding along everyday, coming to the ballpark with that ultimate goal of being ready long term, not just short term, because that's what these guys want, is long term. We're here for them. But ultimately it's up to them. Ultimately, it's up to Jose to make the decision and make the commitment: I'm going to be a big leaguer every day."