One of the biggest differences for the Detroit Tigers in 2015 has been the play of José Iglesias. His acrobatic glove work was to be expected, and his hot bat has been a pleasant surprise.
Barring injury, it looks like the Bengals have potentially found their shortstop for the next decade.
The road to major league baseball is never easy, but Iglesias had the distinct disadvantage of being born in Cuba. Some of the most exciting players in the game today, such as Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, and Yoenis Cespedes, hail from the communist island nation. Every one of them has a compelling story to tell of how they defected.
Iglesias’s tale may be the most fascinating.
He began his professional career as a 16-year-old with the Vaqueros de La Habana in 2006, and hit .322 the following season.
In 2009, Iglesias participated in the World Junior Baseball Championship for Team Cuba, held in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta.
Before heading off to Canada with the team, he talked with his father about the possibility of defecting once he was in Edmonton. After all, this was an opportunity that the young Iglesias might never have again. “I talked about it with my dad in Cuba. He always said, whatever’s the best for me in my career and for my future, just do it,” Iglesias recalls. “I think it was a good idea to be over here in this country, especially to have the opportunity to play in the big leagues.”
It was an alluring, yet frightening, prospect for the kid. After all, he didn’t speak a word of English.
But once in Canada, he and teammate Noel Arguelles made the move that changed both of their lives.
The team was staying in a dorm on the University of Alberta campus. Late on a July night, the pair snuck out. “We just got up and left the hotel,” Iglesias remembers. Arguelles’s father had agreed to be their accomplice. He quickly whisked them into his waiting car, and drove them across the border.
Once in the States, the players met up with an agent by the name of Jaime Torres, who had previously helped many Cuban defectors. He worked out deals for both of them, Arguelles with the Kansas City Royals, and Iglesias with the Boston Red Sox.
Iglesias was determined to make the major leagues. But he was equally determined to learn to speak English fluently. “It took me a full season to pick up some words and stuff,” he said, “but after that it was smooth sailing.”
After several years of minor league seasoning, the Red Sox brought up Iglesias in May of 2011, at the tender age of 21. He played only a few games before being returned to Triple-A Pawtucket, but in September he was back in Beantown.
His first major league hit came at Fenway Park on September 15, 2011 off Tampa Bay’s Alex Torres. Appropriately, it was a ground ball to deep second base that he beat out for a single. Infield hits would later become Iglesias’s stock in trade.
Iglesias struggled at the dish in 2012, hitting only .118 in 25 games for the Red Sox. But he got off to a quick start the following year. With his average at .330 on July 30, he was traded to the Tigers in a three-team deal that also involved the Chicago White Sox (Detroit surrendered Avisail Garcia to Chicago and Brayan Villarreal to Boston).
As for Noel Arguelles, who defected along with Iglesias, he is currently a free agent, after struggling for several seasons in the Royals minor league organization.
Iglesias missed all of the 2014 season due to injuries, but he is hoping his physical woes are behind him for good. When healthy, Iglesias is one of the most exciting young infielders in the game today, and he should develop into a fan favorite. The Tigers are hedging their bets when it comes to his hitting ability. They’d likely be thrilled if he hit in the .250-.260 range this year.
Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy has won the American League Gold Glove at short the past three years. But don’t be surprised if José Iglesias carries off one of those trophies following the 2015 season.
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Take a look at this play pulled off by Iglesias on Monday night against the Yankees, the latest gem from the acrobatic shortstop: