Jose Iglesias played four full seasons for the Detroit Tigers, but it seems like he was here for a decade.
This offseason the enigmatic shortstop will change uniforms, exercising his free agent rights. There’s little chance the Tigers will make an offer to retain him.
It’s hard to find fans in Detroit who will miss Iglesias. His tenure in Detroit was strange, uneven, and controversial. But mostly it was disappointing.
Iglesias came to the team in a three-team trade in the middle of the 2013 season that cost Detroit young outfielder Avisail Garcia and reliever Brayan Villarreal. At the time, the 23-year old Cuban was filling in at short for the injured Stephen Drew for the Red Sox. He surprised the Boston brass by getting hot at the plate, he was hitting over .400 on July 4th. Iglesias was considered a one-trick pony: a flashy defensive whiz who couldn’t hit much. There were questions of whether he would ever hit well enough to be in a lineup regularly. Some in the Boston front office thought Iglesias was destined for a utility player role. But the hits kept coming in the summer of 2013 and when Drew came back from his injury, the Sox had a decision to make. General Manager Ben Cherington didn’t hesitate: he dealt Iglesias at the July 31 trade deadline, acknowledging that Iglesias’ recent hitting spree inflated the young player’s value as high as it might ever be.
Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski needed Iglesias, but he couldn’t tell anyone exactly why. Since spring training, Major League Baseball had been investigating a drug scandal at Biogenesis, a lab that had supplied performance-enhancing drugs to players for several years. Detroit shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s name had been linked to Biogenesis since February. Initially Peralta strongly denied having used PEDs. Then, in June his denial was less adamant, then he went silent. Dombrowski knew that MLB would hand down suspensions in early August. With Peralta’s head in the noose, he knew almost certainly that his star shortstop would be suspended.
Sure enough, on August 5, Peralta’s name was included among the 13 who were suspended for PED usage via the Biogenesis lab. Peralta’s penalty was 50 games, meaning he would essentially miss the rest of the regular season. Dombrowski saw Iglesias as insurance.
The Tigers won their third consecutive division title in 2013, and after July it was never in doubt. In his first week with the team, Iglesias never saw them lose, as the Tigers finished off a 12-game win streak. Iglesias teamed with second baseman Omar Infante for the balance of the season. After the trade, Iglesias batted .259 in 46 games with a pair of home runs. It was in the field where he turned heads, making flashy plays, including several off-balance throws. The Cuban shortstop made just two errors in 45 games at shortstop for Detroit.
Peralta returned for the final weekend of the regular season and the playoffs in 2013, but he left Motown as a free agent that winter. Which left the shortstop job to Iglesias. But “Iggy” wan’t able to do that job in 2014 because he suffered shin splints in both legs. Most likely the cause of the injuries was twofold: a sudden increase in training and a genetic condition that affects Iglesias’ feet. He wears inserts in his shoes to alleviate the shape and bone weaknesses in his feet, but at some point Iglesias overtrained or trained too much too quickly and caused inflammation and damage to his legs. The injuries proved serious and Iglesias missed the entire season.
Maybe it was his lost ’14 season that caused Detroit fans to have uncomfortable feelings about Iglesias. Just as they were getting to know him, he disappeared. To further complicate the relationship between the starting shortstop and the fans, it was just beginning of his injury saga.
Barely three weeks into the 2015 season, Iglesias made an awkward attempt to make a game-ending double play in Tampa against the Rays. He crossed in front of second base with the ball, tripped on the bag, and while falling forward he fired to first off-balance. The throw went wide and the Rays scored the winning run. As his teammates walked off the field, Iglesias lay on the ground hurt. When he tripped over the bag, Iglesias had fallen into the sliding Tampa runner, taking a knee to his head. He tore up his knee and more seriously, probably suffered a concussion. He missed three weeks that season to that injury and others. More injuries, and controversy followed later in the season.
On August 7, 2015, in a game against his former team at Comerica Park, Iglesias and teammate James McCann fought in the dugout, a fracas that was caught on camera. During the contest a grounder was hit up the middle on the shortstop side of second. Iglesias ran after the ball but didn’t seem to run that hard. The ball ended up passing him into center field, a few feet from his left. It seemed to McCann from his position at catcher that Iglesias could have dove for the ball. After the inning, McCann barked at Iglesias over the play, the shortstop shoved McCann, and the teammates had to be separated. After the confrontation, Anthony Gose got in Iggy’s face.
Iglesias made the All-Star team in 2015 on the strength of a hot first half at the plate. He would make great plays in the field that people said they’d never seen before, but then in the next game he would lazily run after a line drive. In many cases others around the league loved him more than we did, because they only saw him in three-game chunks. The warts were hidden. Iglesias cooled in the second half of the 2015 season, he continued to struggle to hit the slider or a curveball. Throughout his career he’s essentially been a predictable first-ball fastball hitter. No grinding out at-bats, no discernment or careful approach to hitting.
Throughout his career, Iglesias has been a contradiction. On the one hand he can look fantastic in the field, ranging far and wide to gather groundballs and executing off-balance throws. His hands are fast and his movements are fluid, he’s excellent at going back and catching pop flies in the short regions of the outfield. But on the other hand, the man they call “Little Flame” can be nonchalant, casual in his approach to fielding routine balls. He doesn’t like to dive and he can look bored and disinterested. His body language can be bad, and that pissed off some of his teammates.
While he was a Tiger, Iglesias burned through mentors. Infante tried to council the young infielder early on, then it was Victor Martinez, a respected team leader who often takes it on himself to work with young Latin players. Finally, Miguel Cabrera took Iggy under his wing after the 2017 season. That year, Iglesias went on the disabled list for the fourth straight season as a Tiger. Cabrera was determined to work hard in the offseason to strengthen and reshape his body, having suffered nagging injuries as he headed into his mid 30s. In the winter, Cabrera shepherded Iglesias to join him in working with the personal trainer that has previously helped Lebron James and many NFL players stay fit. But while Cabrera showed up for the intense workouts, Iglesias was a no-show more than once.
That’s the thing about Iglesias and his tenure with Detroit: he’s gifted but he doesn’t respect his gift. He lives on raw talent alone. He hasn’t improved in any area of his game: Iglesias still swings at bad pitches (he walked 40 times combined in 2017-18); he has reported to camp overweight; he’s failed to add power to his game. Under new manager Ron Gardenhire he did agree to steal more bases, but he also makes as many boneheaded base running plays as anyone on the team.
What will the legacy be of Iglesias in Detroit? Sadly, there won’t be much of one. Maybe we shouldn’t blame him. He came here as insurance, he was always a set piece, a side dish to the Kinsler’s and Cabrera’s and Hunter’s who were around here. But he also had a light that he never seemed to switch on, a level he never bothered to go to, a gear he never used. For that reason, we never really knew how good Iglesias could be.