Have Glove, Will Travel: Andrelton Simmons and José Iglesias Find New Teams

© Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The itinerant gunslinger is a time-worn trope in Westerns, but baseball experienced a resurgence of its own version of it over the weekend. Andrelton Simmons and José Iglesias, two older free agents with sterling defensive reputations, are each headed to a new team. Simmons signed with the Cubs, a one-year, $4 million deal with incentives that could push his total payout higher. Meanwhile, Iglesias signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Rockies. Rather than cover them both separately, let’s go through the deals together so that I can force some metaphors on you and compare two delightfully shrewd defensive wizards.

The glove-only shortstop isn’t what it used to be, particularly if you hit like Simmons did in 2021. He stumbled to a .223/.283/.274 batting line, and while his defense was predictably excellent, that’s simply not enough to lock down an everyday starting role. The Twins weren’t good last year, and even then, Simmons started to lose playing time as the season wore on. The Cubs will be his third team in the past three years, and he’s solidly into the short-term-stints-on-okay-teams phase of his career.

For his part, Iglesias must think Simmons is downright sedentary. The Rockies will be his sixth team in five seasons; he’s bounced around on one-year deals since 2019, and even got traded in-season last year. He wasn’t an offensive black hole to the extent that Simmons was in 2021, but he’s hardly Carlos Correa with the bat in his hands; he’s compiled a 93 wRC+ in his last four seasons. His defense doesn’t grade out as well as Simmons’ does, though; depending on who you listen to, he was somewhere between acceptable and quite bad defensively last year after being solid throughout his career.

Let’s leave aside defense for a moment, though. With a bat in their hands, the two are shockingly similar. Simmons has a career 87 wRC+; so does Iglesias. Simmons has a career .104 ISO; Iglesias checks in at .105. Both of them strike out and walk at clips far below league average. Both have provided negligible value on the basepaths. Both are groundball hitters who run BABIPs right around .300. Both are free swingers who nonetheless rarely swing and miss.

When you consider how athletic you have to be to play a plus shortstop, this profile starts to make more sense. Simmons and Iglesias have likely been the best defensive infielders on their team every year since they were kids. They’ve probably been the most coordinated, had some of the strongest arms, and had the fastest reflexes. When that’s your skill set, why not swing all the time? It’s worked well enough to get both to the majors, and give them long careers there. Why change?

In 2022, both will find themselves towards the bottom of their teams’ batting orders, but that’s not why either of them signed. The Cubs and Rockies both had spots available on their infield after losing their long-time shortstops in the past year. Neither team is likely to make the playoffs; they both won fewer than 75 games last year and said goodbye to key contributors. Both are looking for a youth movement to anchor their next playoff team.

If you’re a young pitcher, it’s hard to imagine a better shortstop behind you than Andrelton Simmons. Want to learn the lesson that it’s good to make the opponent hit grounders? Plant one of the greatest defensive infielders ever behind you and let him go to work. Likewise, Colorado has long tried to cultivate groundball pitchers to deal with Coors Field. If they don’t think that Garrett Hampson or Brendan Rodgers can stick at short, they need a glove man to make their defensive strategy work.

I’m not convinced that there’s more to these signings than that simple fact. Good defense might not take you from being a 70-win team to a 95-win juggernaut, but it seems plausible that good infield defense could help develop young pitching – or at least keep pitch counts down and help build confidence. For a team on the precipice of the playoffs, it might not matter how you get to the 1.5 wins that both shortstops are projected for – wins are wins. But Chicago and Colorado aren’t trying to maximize wins at the moment. If I’m going to win 75 games and have a 1.5-WAR shortstop, give me the best-glove option available.

I’m actually a fan of these signings for both teams, which is why I’ve grouped them together so consistently. There’s that aspect of helping out your pitching staff, sure. But it’s also worth considering that despite not being playoff teams, the Cubs and Rockies will both draw fans, and perhaps gobs of them, as they both play in fun ballparks that haven’t been as full the last two years because of the pandemic.

If you aren’t going to make the playoffs but want your fans to have fun, it’s hard to imagine a better signing than a flashy defensive shortstop. Watching Simmons captain an infield and rifle snap throws to catch disbelieving runners or turn impossible double plays is my favorite viewing experience in the majors. Iglesias isn’t Simmons-level fun out there, but he’s one of the smoothest defenders in the big leagues. Tough scoops, impossible angles, barehanded attempts; he does everything in the field with grace, and while you don’t get any extra runs for looking slick out there, it sure makes baseball more fun to watch regardless of the scoreboard.

At the same time, I assume that both teams would be ready to move on from these defensive stalwarts in any of a variety of scenarios. If a prospect needs playing time at shortstop in the majors, that will likely take precedent. If some of the players already in the majors look good enough defensively that the team wants to try them at short and see if they can stick, that will likely take precedent. If a contending team loses its shortstop and offers an intriguing prospect in exchange for a veteran rental – you guessed it, that will likely take precedent.

But remaining pragmatic doesn’t make these signings bad moves. Spending some money to improve your team’s defense and make them more fun to watch is a move I’m fully behind, no matter how it turns out. If I were a fan of a random non-contending club, I’d absolutely want them to sign exciting defenders to reasonable one-year deals. To loop back to the trope that opened the article, Simmons and Iglesias are no longer leading men, the implacable sheriffs of their own towns. I’m glad they’ve decided to roam the country in search of a place they can ply their trade full-time instead of accepting backup roles where we’d be denied the chance to see some of the best defenders around.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Good read, spot on analysis – thanks. You never know, with a little pixie dust, one of them could put up career numbers like Brandon Crawford did last year at 34 years old.

1 year ago
Reply to  DDD

You almost never know, but in this case we know that Simmons and Iglesias are not putting up a batting line 40% above league average

1 year ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Simmons is so good if he just hits 90 wRC+ or even league average he can put up one of the highest WAR tallies in the major league