Well, look at that. The calendar flips to 2020 and things already look up for the Orioles.
After 2019 came to an end with one of the team’s top players in Jonathan Villar and one of its core pitchers in Dylan Bundy being shipped out, 2020 got started with the news that Jose Iglesias will be coming aboard as the shortstop for next season.
That’s good news. No, I’m not saying to book World Series tickets, and I’m not saying that Iglesias belongs in a sentence with Cal Ripken, Luis Aparicio, Miguel Tejada and other iconic Orioles shortstops.
But Iglesias is a sensible signing, and he should make what is shaping up to be another long spring and summer a little more enjoyable.
The first thing to consider was the necessity. With Villar gone, the Orioles had to make a move. Their in-house options were poor; they could ride it out with Richie Martin as the starter, but he looked overwhelmed at the plate in his first season, and for a 25-year-old with apparent upside, it’s better to give him the Triple-A seasoning he needs than force him into a sink-or-swim situation.
They could give Pat Valaika a bigger role, but that would be the same situation as with Martin. There’s no one in the system to whom it would have made sense to give the keys right away. And no one in the front office or dugout would want to see such a job go to a career player elsewhere the way center field would go to Stevie Wilkerson or right field to Trey Mancini.
So they had to make a move. And they could have done a lot worse than Iglesias.
The most important thing was for the new shortstop to be defensive-oriented. The Orioles are going to be testing a lot of young pitchers this season, and the last thing they are going to need is a leak at the infield’s most important position. It’ll be hard enough for incoming pitchers like Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer to make the jump without double play grounders being bobbled and two-out balls to shortstop being thrown wildly to first to extend innings. They call it “run prevention” for a reason.
Without question, Iglesias fits that role. Consider: the 30-year-old shortstop totaled eight defensive runs saved, a 5.9 UZR and a 1.4 defensive WAR. For comparison’s sake, Francisco Lindor, the American League Gold Glove winner at shortstop, totaled nine, 6.4 and 1.7, respectively. Nick Ahmed, the NL winner, had 18 runs saved for Arizona, but Iglesias’s number goes from eight to 15.2 if he plays the same number of innings as the Diamondbacks shortstop.
So Iglesias can field, and with his dazzling style of play, he’ll be fun to watch. We knew that. But Martin made his share of highlight-reel plays too, and looked better in the field than some so-so metrics would suggest. So what’s the real gain?
That’s what makes the move hard to hate. If this were 2011 and ’12, when Iglesias was a smooth-fielding, no-hitting shortstop trying to crack a spot in the Boston lineup, this move would feel redundant, like the Orioles were going in the exact direction they made it clear they didn’t want to go with Martin.
But Iglesias has improved considerably as a hitter. He’s not Villar, but he batted .288 with a .724 OPS, 11 home runs and 59 RBI in 504 at-bats last year, proving he can handle full-time work at the plate. And he’s batted .273 over his last five seasons between Detroit and Cincinnati, proving he’s not just someone who thrived in a contract year.
And, no small thing: he doesn’t strike out. He whiffed 70 times in those 500-plus at-bats last year. He doesn’t walk either (just 20 last year, and he’s never reached 30), but he puts his bat on the ball, a trait that is worth its wait in gold when it becomes time to hit with a runner on third and one out in a tie game.
There are some areas of concern, or at least doubt. Iglesias will have to go back to hitting American League pitching, which he’s accustomed to but, save for one All-Star season in 2015 (he hit .300 with a .717 OPS in 416 at-bats), he’s hit at a clip below how he performed for the Reds last season.
And there are the aforementioned issues with his plate discipline. As we’ve seen from various Orioles throughout the years (Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop), that’s not something that’s easy to teach players midway through their big-league careers. Iglesias doesn’t walk, and don’t count on that changing this year.
But this is a great fit, for a year with a wait-and-see clause built in for 2021, and there wasn’t a guarantee that the Orioles were going to go this route. After the Villar and Bundy decisions, thinking was that the O’s were in full tank mode, and so it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the answer at shortstop was some bottom-dollar Band-Aid on the problem.
Surprise, the Orioles got a real player to take the job. We’ll see how it pans out, but it’s hard not to like how it looks from the starting gate.