By David Willis
LOWELL — Only a wizard-style backflip could have made the moment of defensive magic more complete.
Red Sox star prospect Jose Iglesias ranged to his right deep into the hole, backhanded the screaming line drive on a short hop at the outfield grass and effortlessly flipped the ball to first, turning a sure-fire hit into an easy out.
"That guy is electric," raved longtime Red Sox minor league coach Bruce Crabbe soon after. "He is just flash and makes it look easy. That kid is the real deal."
There is no question, Jose Iglesias can really play shortstop.
And make no mistake, the style he plays the position has almost nothing in common with the way Nomar Garciaparra used to or the way Mike Aviles currently does.
The smooth, elegant style in which Iglesias plays shortstop is almost artistic to watch and that dynamic defense has garnered the utmost praise.
He has earned the title of "The Next Great Red Sox Shortstop" and is currently ranked the No. 4 prospect in the Red Sox system. Sports Illustrated even compared his defensive ability to the greatest defensive shortstop of all-time, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.
"It really is a combination of instincts and hard work," said Iglesias, who is how playing for Triple A Pawtucket. "I try to be ready on every single pitch of every game and do whatever I can to make the play."
Ozzie a big fan
The soft-spoken infielder very nearly won the starting shortstop job in Boston this spring, and is likely to earn a late-season call-up.
When he does, he will have a fan in the legendary Smith.
"I knew my defense was what allowed me to play at the big league level," said Smith from his home in St. Louis. "You need to have someone that you can have confidence in, and it seems like Jose is one of those people.
"It make a team better to have someone at shortstop that can go get the ground balls and make the big outs. It is the way baseball is meant to be played and it gives pitchers a great deal of confidence.
Smith earned iconic status during his 19-year major league career, 15 of them with the St. Louis Cardinals. He won 13 consecutive Golden Gloves, was a 15-time National All-Star and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002, his first year of eligibility.
Long considered the gold standard for shortstop, Smith earned the nickname "The Wizard" as much for his spectacular play at shortstop as for his trademark backflip he would perform on the field after making a highlight play.
Now 57, Smith yearns for the days of highlight-reel defense that Iglesias has shown the ability to deliver, not the lumbering slugger shortstops that became the norm in baseball during the steroid era.
"Baseball went in a bad direction," said Smith. "During the whole 'Chicks dig the long ball' era teams started to forgo defense in favor of guys that could hit home runs.
"Guys like me and Omar Vizquel used to be the prototypical shortstop. Now they want bigger guys, and I just don't think that pays off. You can't expect a 6-foot-3, 215-pound guy to make the plays like a little guy could make."
At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Iglesias shares a similar build to Smith, who was 5-11 and 150 pounds in his playing days.
Now in his third season with the Red Sox organization, after signing a $6.25 million contract as an international free agent out of Cuba, Iglesias was named the best defensive player in the organization by Baseball America.
It was his glove that attracted the Red Sox in the beginning, and his defense that has wowed fans from LeLacheur Park in Lowell to Fenway Park during his 10-game big league stint last season.
Offense a question mark
However, while his spectacular defense has earned comparisons to Smith, Iglesias has also drawn comparisons for another reason. A lack of offense.
In 217 minor league games, Iglesias has just a .262 batting average with 65 RBIs in 803 at-bats, and people have questioned if he can be the long-term answer in Boston if his bat does not improve.
But Smith, who hit .238 over his first seven big league seasons, then improved to .277 over his final 12 years, believes that Iglesias' struggles are no reason to panic.
"I got to the major leagues because of the way I could field," he said. "But at some point I started to understand my approach to the plate. Offense is about feeling comfortable and sometimes guys need longer to figure it out. But you should not give up on a great defensive player because of offense."
Iglesias admits his offense has been lacking, but he feels he is growing as a hitter.
"Hitting is a lot harder (than fielding)," he said with a laugh. "Curveballs still scare me a little. Hitting is the hardest thing to do in the world. I try to focus on a point on the mound. I feel like I am getting better every day.
"I feel like I am more disciplined at the plate now. I am putting the ball in play. Hopefully that continues."
Crabbe, who managed Iglesias during his time with the Spinners in 2010 and his rehab stint in Lowell this season, believes he sees a great deal of growth.
"He has a much more controlled approach to his whole game now," said Crabbe. "He has always been confident, but now he is able to put the game in perspective. He knows what the speed of the game needs to be and ramp it up. But he has always been a tremendous defender."
Deja vu defense
During his first stint with the Lowell Spinners, Iglesias mirrored one of Smith's most iconic plays, lunging back to snag a ball that had bounced and changed directions with his bare hand and turn it into an out.
Having a player with the ability to make those kind of plays, The Wizard believes, is a prize teams cannot waste.
"For me, defense was a gift," said Smith. "And realizing that, I worked hard because I knew it was going to be my bread and butter. Having a strong defensive shortstop makes the whole team more confident, and makes the pitcher feel he doesn't have to strike everyone out.
"You have to stop the opponents. It's just like basketball. If this young man is that good a defensive player, they will find a place for him."
Iglesias, for one, cannot wait to return to Boston, this time hopefully for good.
"Being in the big leagues last season at 21 was amazing," he said. "I am very blessed to be playing baseball and be in the Red Sox organization. I want to play and I want to show I can help the team."
See his story
For video of Red Sox infield prospect Jose Iglesias talking baseball, visit eagletribune.com/sports.
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David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Eagle-Tribune. His video profiles can be seen at eagletribune.com/sports.