Jose Iglesias, 19, and Casey Kelly, 20, members of the Arizona Fall League’s Mesa Solar Sox team, are two of the younger players in Major League Baseball’s premier development league. The fact that they are both shortstops representing the Red Sox organization is where the similarity between them ends.
The backgrounds of two ballplayers are quite different.
Kelly was raised in a professional baseball environment. The Sarasota, Fla., native is the son of Pat Kelly, a veteran minor league manager now working in the Reds organization and a former major league catcher. He was a two-sport star in high school, passing for 4,212 career yards and 37 touchdowns as a quarterback for his high school football team while also being named Florida’s “Mr. Baseball” in 2008 as a shortstop and pitcher. Kelly passed up a football scholarship to of Tennessee after being selected by the Red Sox in the first round (30th overall) in the 2008 draft.
In contrast, Iglesias is a Cuban native whose exposure in his country to Major League Baseball games was very limited. His advanced baseball experience consisted of 75 games for los Vaqueros de la Habana in Cuba’s top league, Serie Nacional. He batted .322/.356/.430 for that team before defecting in August 2008 during the World Junior Championships in Edmonton, Canada.
After establishing residency in the Dominican Republic, Iglesias agreed with the Red Sox in July 2009 to a major league contract worth $8.2 million, which just became official last month.
Just as their backgrounds are dissimilar, the future career paths of the two Red Sox farmhands may diverge as early as next season.
Iglesias’ future is undoubtedly at shortstop. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound righthanded hitter has already drawn rave reviews for his defensive skills at the position. While there are still questions about his bat, there are no concerns that Iglesias won’t be able to play shortstop at the big league level.
Kelly, on the other hand, may not remain at shortstop after this fall. In a rather unique arrangement, the 6-foot-3, 194-pound righthander spent the first half of the 2009 season as a pitcher, posting records of 6-1, 1.12 for low Class A Greenville and 1-4, 3.09 at high Class A Salem. After throwing a perfect inning in the Futures Game, Kelly went to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and eventually back to Greenville to play shortstop. He batted a combined .222/.302/.340 at the two levels.
Most baseball observers believe that Kelly’s future is on the mound, but that decision won’t be made until after the fall season. Kelly doesn’t give a hint on his preference between the two positions or where he thinks he’ll wind up next year, but he believes that doing the split season again is not in his best interests.
“I think next year that it will be one position,” he said. “The split season doesn’t really help either way. It was (done) this year to see how pitching was going to go . . . Next year we’ll try to narrow it down to one position.”
He’s focusing entirely on his hitting and shortstop play while in Arizona, with no pitching instruction or bullpen work at all. He equates the decision on his future position to the one he had to make to give up the football scholarship to play professional baseball.
“Everything will unfold for itself,” said Kelly, “just like when I got drafted I had to pick between playing football and baseball. Everything worked out from there.”
Kelly shows obvious interest when asked about whether he still thinks about where he’d be now had he chosen the football route out of high school.
“Yeah, every Saturday I do,” he said. “Every (college football) game I watch I think about what could have been. I definitely don’t regret any decision that I’ve made so far. This is where I want to be and this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
For now, Kelly’s schedule is close to that of a football player in that he’s on the taxi squad for the Solar Sox. He’s eligible to play only in Saturday and Wednesay games. “I just kind of watch the game and learn as much as I can,” he said, “how everybody goes about their business . . . Watching the games and how guys approach the game is going to help me a lot.”
It’s not like Kelly is on vacation while in Arizona.
“Casey’s work ethic is going to really propel him wherever he’s going to go,” Solar Sox hitting coach Billy McMillon said. “He works hard. He doesn’t go through the motions.”
Iglesias has a different purpose for being in the AFL. It’s his first professional experience stateside, and he’s getting used to a new culture, a new language and a somewhat different brand of baseball.
“It’s the same baseball, but guys here are more disciplined and more professional,” said Iglesias through interpreter Luis Exposito, a Solar Sox teammate and catcher in the Red Sox organization.
He’s already opening eyes in the AFL for his glove work, showing tremendous actions, good range and a plus arm. Iglesias has shown the ability to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the ball in his first few AFL games. The big question is whether he will gain enough strength to be able to handle more advanced pitching as he progresses through the system.
“There’s something there,” said McMillon, who is the Red Sox hitting coach at Greenville affiliate. “Obviously, he needs to polish those (offensive skills) up, and get working in a professional manner because this is all new to him. (He has) tremendous upside. Our scouting department did a really good job in finding him.”
Iglesias is especially eager to become part of the long Red Sox tradition.
“The Red Sox are a great team,” said Iglesias. “One major lesson I’ve learned is that to play for the Boston Red Sox you have to be a hard worker, you have to play hard, and learn how to play like a team.”
Iglesias has already impressed those around him by his intelligence and outgoing personality. Although he uses an interpreter for media interviews, he is freely able to converse casually in English.
“He’s going to catch on quickly,” said McMillon. “He seems to be an intelligent kid. Once he makes that transition to American professional baseball, I think he’s going to be good.”
• Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Tanner Scheppers (Rangers), two of the more heralded pitchers in the 2009 draft, both made their AFL debuts on Friday.
Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, yielding two hits and walking one while fanning two. He threw 50 pitches, 32 of them for strikes. His top speed was reported at 99 mph. Strasburg’s debut was the Fall League’s big event for the week; the attendance for the Desert Dogs’ night game against the Scottsdale Scorpions was announced at 1,138, a large crowd by AFL standards.
Earlier in the day, Scheppers, drafted by the Rangers in the supplemental first round, pitched two scoreless innings in relief for the Surprise Rafters against the Solar Sox. He struck out two batters while giving up one hit and one walk. The Fresno State product, who re-entered the draft one year after suffering a shoulder injury just before the end of his junior year of college, was clocked at his pre-injury speed of 98-99 mph.