The Orioles announced their signing of free-agent shortstop José Iglesias on Tuesday, a move executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias sees not only addressing the team’s middle infield needs, but also benefiting its developing pitching staff.
The deal will pay Iglesias, who turned 30 on Sunday, $2.5 million in 2020 with a club option for $3.5 million in 2021 that comes with a $500,000 buyout. Iglesias stands among the best defensive shortstops in baseball, ranking as the major league leader in fielding percentage at the position since 2013, his first season in the majors. In that same span, he ranks third in Ultimate Zone Rating and eighth in Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs while playing for the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and, in 2019, the Cincinnati Reds.
The move fills Baltimore’s middle-infield hole that widened with last month’s trade of Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins while also supplying a well-regarded defender for a pitching staff that should feature plenty of youth in 2020. On a conference call, Elias said that among shortstops, Iglesias was “in a tier above anyone else that was available on the free-agent market.”
“We're thrilled with the acquisition,” Elias said. “Bringing in a veteran shortstop, let alone one with the resume of accomplishments that José Iglesias brings to us, was a major priority for us this offseason. We feel in particular his defensive capabilities will bring a tremendous amount of stability to our club. We expect a lot of young pitchers from the minor league system to be graduating to the major league club, and having his glove behind them is going to be a huge part of their development, and just the ability to bring a guy like José in here for the next couple of years as this club starts to turn the corner we think will be a huge part of our success in executing our rebuilding process and is a big part of our plan.
"We try to quantify the value of good defense, but I think it is beyond measurement sometimes what it can bring to your whole staff."
The addition of Iglesias came with the corresponding move of right-hander Eric Hanhold, claimed off waivers from the New York Mets in September, being designated for assignment. It also enables the Orioles, who lack infield depth throughout their system, to better deploy second-year shortstop Richie Martin, who spent 2019 battling to stay afloat in the majors as a Rule 5 draft pick who hadn’t previously played above Double-A. He performed much better in the second half, posting an OPS nearly .200 points higher once manager Brandon Hyde started using him in more favorable matchups, often against left-handed pitchers.
Although Elias said the Orioles are open to having Martin on the Opening Day roster, especially given the additional position player needed with the new 26th roster spot, he noted Martin has yet to play at Triple-A and the club’s focus is on what’s best for the 25-year-old’s future.
“I think [Iglesias’ signing is] going to be good for him and his development, in that we've got a veteran, primary shortstop now that can spell Richie, can help teach Richie how to play shortstop at the major league level, but it will allow him to be where he needs to be, to play when he needs to play, to get the at-bats when and where he needs to get them for his personal development sake and not for making sure the team has a shortstop out there,” Elias said. “Last year, when you take a guy straight out of Double-A in the Rule 5 draft and stick him in the American League East, it's not exactly the smoothest development curve, and Richie did great. Kept his head above water. He played great defense for us, showed his tools, but this will allow him to get back on a more natural development track, take some of the pressure off of us relying on him to play shortstop and then give him somebody to look up to and, in many cases I think this year, play next to. It'll probably be a good thing overall for him."
Iglesias said on the conference call that he is looking forward to serving as a mentor for Martin and other Orioles. He’s one of only five 30-year-olds on the rebuilding Orioles’ 40-man roster.
He specifically mentioned Reds first baseman Joey Votto, the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player, as someone who benefited him as a hitter during his year in Cincinnati, when he hit a career-high 11 home runs while slashing .288/.318/.407.
“It's a stage in my career where I’m really going to enjoy it,” Iglesias said. “No. 1 because someone did it for me when I was younger, and it's my time now. I’m really excited for the challenge of making my teammates better.
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“Being a shortstop, being the leader on the field, it’s a big responsibility that I’m really excited to do."