LOWELL — Any player can thrill fans with a home run. But very few have the ability to draw a crowd simply by taking infield practice.
Red Sox prospect Jose Iglesias is one of those players.
"Just watch him play the infield in warmups and you'll see what kind of player he is," said his former roommate and fellow Red Sox farmhand David Renfroe. "It's amazing. This guy is going to be a truly great player."
Iglesias was compared to 13-time Golden Glover Ozzie Smith by Sports Illustrated before he played his first minor league game. It may seem a bit premature, up until the moment the 20-year-old snags his first play.
Iglesias sent the crowd at LeLacheur Park into hysterics over the weekend when, while moving towards second base, he lunged backwards to snag the ball after it hit the pitchers mound and changed directions. Without panic, he flipped a dart to first to nail the runner.
"Jose is one of the best infield prospects in all of baseball," said Lowell Spinners manager Bruce Crabbe. "He's amazing, and that's why (the Red Sox organization) gave him what we gave him. He is outstanding."
Having now played just 53 professional games, Iglesias has earned the title of "The Next Great Red Sox Shortstop," joining the likes of former top prospects Nomar Garciaparra and Hanley Ramirez. But lofty expectations are nothing new for him.
"I don't put a thought into it," said Iglesias. "I don't feel the pressure of my name or what number prospect I am. The only thing I know is playing baseball, and that is what I love to do."
Iglesias defected from Cuba last year in Canada during the World Junior Championships. That then set off a bidding war between a number of teams, including the Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
The Red Sox ended up winning out, signing Iglesias in July of 2009 to a $6.25 million signing bonus — more than double the next largest bonuses ever given by the team, to Casey Kelly ($3 million) and Daisuke Matsuzaka ($2 million).
At the start of the season, Baseball America rated Iglesias as the No. 45 prospect in all of baseball, and No. 9 in the Red Sox organization. In the most recent rankings, he is rated the No. 6 prospect in the organization.
Iglesias opened the 2010 season, first in the minor leagues, in Double-A Portland. In 40 games he hit .306 with nine doubles and three triples before going on the disabled list with a hand injury on May 29.
"I got hit by a pitch in the hand," said Iglesias, who still has a large bump below his thumb "It was tough to be on the bench for two months because I love baseball. I got hurt when it was cold, and by the time the perfect weather was here I as out. It hurt. There's a lot of bone there."
Cleared to play, Iglesias joined the Spinners for a rehab assignment at the start of August. In 10 games at designated hitter and two at shortstop, he hit .350 (14 for 48) with two triples.
With his glove considered just about major league ready, Iglesias admits that growing with the bat has been a greater challenge.
"Hitting is a lot harder," he said with a laugh. "Curveballs still scare me a little. Hitting is the hardest think to do in the world, and is even harder when you miss games. I try to focus on a point on the mound. I feel like I am getting better every day."
While his game steadily improves, Iglesias is also working on the day-to-day challenge of his new life in America.
"It's very different," said Iglesias. "The culture, the people. I'm away from my family and living alone. I have to order my own food, which is tough because I still don't speak perfect English. But it is getting easier."
Many have speculated that Iglesias is on track to be the starting shortstop for the Red Sox by the 2012 season, many noting that current Boston shortstop Marco Scutaro's contract is up at the end of next season.
But the up-beat Iglesias doesn't let the pressure overtake him.
"I do whatever I can," he said. "Sometimes, if my hand hurts, I keep playing because I don't want to lose a week. All I can control is what I do on the field. And, God willing, one day it's going to happen. I have no idea how it will feel, but being in the majors isn't something everyone has a chance to do."
The next big thing?
While the Red Sox have struggled to find a starting shortstop in recent seasons, Jose Iglesias is the third in a line of top prospects at the position for the Sox in the last 15 years, and the first two panned out in a big way.
Nameyear acquiredhowtime in minorsyears in majorsaccomplishments
Nomar Garciaparra1994draft2 1/2 seasons1996-2009Six-time All-Star, two-time batting champ
Hanley Ramirez2000international free agentfour seasons2005-presentthree-time All-Star, 2009 NL batting champ
Jose Iglesias2009international free agentone season
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