Although Carlos Correa’s free agency has sucked up almost all of the available shortstop oxygen during the lockout (and will again when Offseason Part Two begins), he is not the most likely shortstop outcome for the Cubs by the time Opening Day rolls around. Far from it.
We’ve discussed a good bit about how important it is for the Cubs to have an exceptionally good defensive infield this year if they want any chance at competing, and, to that end, bringing in a stellar defensive shortstop is key. Not only does it shore up the defense at the most important infield position, but it also allows the Cubs to deploy Nico Hoerner more strategically, both to protect his health (it’s been an issue), and to maximize defensive match-ups. The thinking is that, although Hoerner could be a passable defensive shortstop, we already know he’s an elite defender at second base. He wouldn’t start there every day because of Nick Madrigal, but he could be there periodically, and also rotate in during certain games. All of that is predicated on the Cubs having a stud defender at short.
Correa is about as studly as a defender gets at shortstop in this – or almost any other – class, but I’ll again note that signing him seems pretty unlikely (the Cubs will try!). So we’ve previously looked at the other good defenders available to the Cubs, and now we have reason to discuss two of them again.
In their latest chat at The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney *both* offered up the same two names as possibilities for the Cubs in free agency coming out of the lockout: Jonathan Villar and Jose Iglesias. Pretty notable that both said the same two names, no?
Here’s how it came up for Sharma:
Q: Who do you see playing short stop next year?
A: I think it’ll end up being a shared spot with Nico and a veteran on a short deal. Maybe someone like Iglesias or Villar.
And for Mooney:
Q: Who do you think the starting SS will be opening day?
A: Jonathan Villar or Jose Iglesias.
The thinking from Sharma and Mooney – the sense you get in the chat, and from podcasts we’ve done – seems to be that (1) signing Correa is highly unlikely, and (2) it isn’t necessary to get an everyday shortstop this offseason, just someone who can start there sometimes and will be good with the glove all over the infield. Fair enough. Maybe a subtle difference from what I’ve been thinking – and one that makes Villar much more attractive – but not necessarily a big enough difference that I’m gonna disagree with them.
When we went through the list of possible shortstop defenders the Cubs could sign, I noted that Jonathan Villar, 30, was the only free agent shortstop (non-Correa edition) who rated as above-average defensively at shortstop in all three of the most common advanced defensive metrics in 2021 (DRS, OAA, UZR/150). He was only slightly above-average in each, though, and in a very small sample. Historically, he’s rated as something closer to league average or slightly below.
You do love the versatility, though, and having a league-average switch-hitting bat is a big plus. And he’s got speed. Among the options for the Cubs, I’ve come to think of Villar as something near the top (though a costs-nothing trade for Nick Ahmed is probably still at the top for me). Villar just feels like one of those guys that any team could use in some role or another.
As for Jose Iglesias, I will guess that most of you are familiar with his defensive work over the years from being on highlight reel after highlight reel. He pairs that defense with a bat that generally works in the 80 to 90 wRC+ range (with a strong contact rate), so although it’s not necessarily a huge plus, it also won’t hurt you too much. We got a little spoiled having a plus bat at shortstop in Javy Báez for so long – a whole lot of quality shortstops out there are just good with the glove, and below average with the bat. You kinda just have to take that tradeoff sometimes.
But about the glove. Here’s the weird thing on Iglesias, who just turned 32: two of his metrics (DRS and UZR/150) were terrrrrrible last year, and the other (OAA) was pretty close to average. That’s not at all normal for him, a guy who was super elite from 2012 through 2019. It’s hard to know for sure whether that’s a real sign of aging and regression – he was also down a bit in the pandemic season in 2020 – or whether it’s a one-year fluke tied to being on a new team. Non-catchers don’t tend to fall off that dramatically in a single year on defense, but obviously it does happen for some guys in their 30s.
I poked around a bit to see if I could find clues on what happened to Iglesias with the Angels, and it seems like two things may have contributed meaningfully to his rough defensive numbers: a dramatic increase in errors relative to his career norms, and back and hamstring issues. The latter might help explain the former, though how you regard it for future seasons could cut two ways: on the one hand, maybe he just was never healthy and was trying to play through injuries, so that’ll be better in 2022! Or, on the other hand, what if the injuries are just the start of the process of taking away his elite ability at shortstop? I hope the Cubs’ pro scouts are really good and can figure that out before they might sign him.
That said, one huge difference between Villar and Iglesias is that the former is definitely going to get a nice big league deal – probably multi-year – whereas the latter might wind up having to settle for a minor league deal to prove he’s still got the defensive chops. I wouldn’t say one route or the other is better for this year’s Cubs, but just wanted to point out the distinction.
One other thing to note here while we consider this tier of shortstop options: the Cubs might already have a guy like this in-house. Although Sergio Alcantara’s bat is still a pretty significant question, the glove has always been scouted as fantastic in the minors, and it rated out (by the stats and the eye test) as really good at shortstop in 2021. I don’t think Alcantara’s presence is a reason not to go after Villar or Ahmed or Iglesias, mind you, but I just don’t want to forget that he’s part of this defense-focused conversation.
Oh, wait, one last thing: it is illegal to write about Jose Iglesias without posting a highlights video. So here you go: