Detroit — Where have all the elite shortstops gone?
At the turn of this century, shortstops were the dominant position in the American League.
The Yankees had Derek Jeter, who in 2000 hit .339 with a .896 OPS.
Alex Rodriguez was in his final year in Seattle, hitting 41 home runs and posting a 1.026 OPS.
Nomar Garciaparra was in Boston hitting .372 with a 1.033 OPS.
Miguel Tejada was whacking 30 home runs, knocking in 115 runs and hitting .275 in Oakland.
And Omar Vizquel, the veteran of the class, was still getting it done in Cleveland, posting a .287 average while performing his defensive wizardry.
Look where the position is now, 15 years later. Jose Iglesias is the lone American League shortstop hitting above .300. His .775 OPS leads the league at the position, as well. And, no American League shortstop has hit more the six home runs or knocked in more than 31 runs.
"That was a unique time, when you had all those guys — A-Rod, Jeter, Tejada, Garciaparra — at once," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Right now at shortstop, I think, because of declining offense across the league, there has been a refocusing on the importance of defense at the shortstop position.
"I think it's kind of gone back to the way it was before those guys came around."
Showing the glove
In the last five years, shortstops in the American League have been more noted for their glove work than bat — Elvis Andrus, Erick Aybar, Asdrubal Cabrera, Alexei Ramirez, Alcides Escobar, Yunel Escobar.
The lone throwbacks were Jhonny Peralta and J.J. Hardy, who hit for power and knocked in runs. Peralta is now in the National League and Hardy has battled injuries this season.
"Traditionally, shortstops are more like me — a defender first and whatever you get offensively is more or less gravy," said Tigers utility infielder Josh Wilson, who has been a keen observer of shortstop trends since he broke into pro baseball in 1999. "There have been those guys who are your best defenders up the middle and your No. 3 hitter. But it does seem like we are getting far removed from those Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar days."
There is evidence, though, we might be witnessing the start of a shortstop renaissance in the American League.
Boston's Xander Bogaerts, Oakland's Marcus Semien, Seattle's Brad Miller — they have shown some offensive punch, in addition to their glove work. Didi Gregorius is starting to find his legs in New York. Cleveland recently called up top prospect Francisco Lindor. And Houston also is starting its top prospect, Carlos Correa.
"There are definitely a lot of good young players coming up, and Iggy's had a little bit of a head start on those guys," Wilson said.
Iglesias, indeed, though in just his first full season as a starter, seems to have put himself at the head of this class. He is second in All-Star fan voting behind Alcides Escobar of the Royals, and is almost certain to be voted onto the team by the players.
"He has a chance to be the best defensive shortstop of that bunch," Ausmus said. "It's tough to say he'll drive in runs. A guy like Correa might drive in some runs, but I don't know that he'll be the defender Iggy is."
'Fun to watch'
The brilliance of Iglesias' glove work — it's the rare night he doesn't make at least one highlight-reel play — may overshadow his steady production at the plate. His .330 average is fourth in the American League, and he has hit safely in 22 of the last 28 games.
"The way he swings the bat and sticks to his game plan, day after day," Wilson said. "I knew he could play defense. Everybody knows he can play defense. But it's really impressive to me how he sticks to his game plan in the batter's box every day and continually gets the job done."
There is no better example than his 10-pitch walk in the eighth inning in the series finale against White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija. He fell behind in the count and continued to battle. He fouled off several tough pitches and took some close ones — none closer than ball four. But he never gave in, and losing the 10-pitch battle seemed to take some of the starch out of Samardzija.
"At that point, in that pitch count, I think that was a very big at-bat," Ausmus said.
Wilson, though, like everybody else, can't wait to see Iglesias' next magic act with the glove.
"What's awesome about him, he has the guts to do stuff that a lot of guys do in batting practice just messing around," he said. "He does it in the game and that's fun. I love seeing that."
There are critics who will say Iglesias plays with a flair. Others call him a hot dog. Wilson has a different word for it.
"He plays with such a confidence, one that I've rarely seen anybody play with before," Wilson said. "I saw Omar (Vizquel) a little bit when he was at the end of his career and he had the same kind of confidence, the way he manipulated the ball and flip it.
"Iggy goes out and plays the game like it's BP or he's in his backyard. That confidence carries him out there."
So, he doesn't need to put a little mustard on that act?
"It's absolutely confidence," Wilson said. "You can call it whatever you want. It's fun to watch."
Earlier this season, Iglesias joked with some reporters he wouldn't answer any questions unless they filled out an All-Star ballot and voted for him. These days, he doesn't find the topic of All-Star balloting all that funny.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said. "The voting has been crazy this year."
He believes he deserves to be on the American League team and is confident his peers will agree.
"The players, they got an idea who deserves to be on there and who doesn't," he said.
Make no mistake, after missing the entire 2014 season with stress fractures in both legs, being selected to the All-Star team would validate all his struggles.
"It would be a privilege," he said. "It's not the main goal for me, but it's a privilege for any baseball player to be part of something special like that. But I can't control what's going on, so we will see what happens.
"I am healthy and for me that's the most important thing. I feel really blessed to be back on the field and I mean that. Helping this team, that's what I enjoy the most."
Leading the charge
A look at where Jose Iglesias ranks among American League shortstops, entering Monday's games:
Player, Team, Avg.
Jose Iglesias, Detroit, .330
Xander Bogaerts, Boston, .294
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City, .281
Erick Aybar, Los Angeles, .264
Marcus Semien, Oakland, .262
Player, Team, Pct.
Xander Bogaerts, Boster, .408
Marcus Semien, Oakland, .399
Jose Iglesias, Detroit, .392
Brad Miller, Seattle, .388
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City, .369
On-base plus slugging
Player, Team, Avg.
Jose Iglesias, Detroit, .775
Xander Bogaerts, Boston, .736
Marcus Semien, Oakland, .713
Brad Miller, Seattle, .702
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City, .686
On deck: Pirates
Series: Three games, tonight-Wednesday, Comerica Park , Detroit
First pitch: 7:08 Tuesday-Wednesday, 1:08 p.m. Thursday
Probables: Tuesday — RHP Gerrit Cole (11-3, 2.16) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-1, 6.17). Wednesday — RHP A.J. Burnett (6-3, 2.01) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (7-4, 3.57). Thursday — LHP Francisco Liriano (4-6, 3.21) vs. LHP Kyle Ryan (1-1, 4.56).
■Cole: He is coming off his worst start, allowing five runs and eight hits to the Reds in 42/3 innings. Before that, he allowed two runs or less in eight straight starts. He beat the Tigers in Pittsburgh in April, holding them to three hits and a run over six innings.
■Verlander: He was scratched from his last start Wednesday with a stiff back. He worked through that and was symptom-free by Saturday. Manager Brad Ausmus said there will be no restrictions. He threw 117 pitches in his start against the Yankees.