Jose Iglesias: Back to the future

JUPITER, Fla. -- There's no denying that Hanley Ramirez is a superstar.

The 26-year-old shortstop for the Florida Marlins has become one of the best players in the majors, and he's only going to improve.

He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2006. He's a two-time All-Star and a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner. He has received MVP votes the past three seasons and was the league's batting champion in 2009.

And, just in case you forgot, he was a top prospect for the Boston Red Sox before he was traded to the Marlins.

It was hard not to think of the once-promising prospect when the Red Sox visited Roger Dean Stadium on Tuesday to face the Marlins in Grapefruit League action. While Ramirez was the starting shortstop for Florida, a player reminiscent of what Ramirez once meant in Boston sat in the visitors dugout.

Jose Iglesias is the prospect who Ramirez once was for the Red Sox. Iglesias, a 20-year-old Cuban defector, is the new shortstop of the future in Boston. The hype has surrounded him since the Sox signed him to a four-year, $8.25 million contract as an international free agent in September.

The Red Sox scouted Ramirez as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic before signing him as an amateur free agent in 2000.

Like Iglesias now, Ramirez was a kid when he began to hone his skills in the Red Sox organization. Now he's a beast at the plate and in the field.

"He's a good player. He's a special player," Iglesias said of Ramirez. "He can do it all."

"I don't know him," Ramirez said of Iglesias.

When told how much Iglesias appreciates his abilities, Ramirez responded, "Hopefully they don't trade him."

Iglesias doesn't think that's going to happen.

"Maybe me stay here," Iglesias said with his accent, a huge smile and a wink.

Iglesias has used his time wisely in big league camp this spring. He's made sure to ask questions of the veteran players, and he's learning by watching.

After Ramirez finished an early-morning photo shoot, he was walking back to the Marlins' clubhouse behind the left-field wall when he was asked to reflect on his development with the Red Sox.

"It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun," he said. "They taught me how to play the game. You have to respect the game, and when you go on the field, you have to play like it's going to be your last game. That's why I respect them so much."

It's clear to anyone watching, especially the Red Sox, that Iglesias does respect the game and plays it the right way. Sure, he still has a lot to learn, but Ramirez had some advice for Iglesias.

"You have to hit .300 or .400, you know, to make it to the big leagues with Boston. Hopefully he works hard and proves he can play in the big leagues right away," Ramirez said.

Ramirez knows exactly what it's like to be successful in the Red Sox organization without getting a chance to prove it at the big league level. In 2005, Ramirez was one of the best players in Double-A. He thought he would reach Triple-A Pawtucket but never did. The Sox made him a September call-up, and he played only two games for the Red Sox before the offseason trade sent him to the Marlins, a deal that brought Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston.

"I was young, you know. I think what they like to see with young players is that you can play the game in front of 45,000 people," Ramirez said. "I showed them that, and I got traded. I'm fine here. I love Florida, and hopefully I'll be here my whole career. I was kind of sad at first, but after that I was glad because this was going to be my chance to play in the big leagues. Everybody has seen what I've done since that day all the way until today."

Before "the trade," Red Sox management knew it would be a difficult decision to part ways with the promising shortstop.

The organization, however, knew something had to be done after an extremely disappointing season in 2005 that ended when the Red Sox were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series. Ownership and management were reminded that there's no substitute for a front-of-the-rotation starter, especially in the AL East.

The Sox knew they needed a successor for the aging Curt Schilling, so the club made it a priority that offseason to acquire a pitcher who could be that guy. The interesting part of the offseason blueprint was that general manager Theo Epstein had temporarily resigned from his post because of snags in his own contract negotiations.

At the start of the general manager meetings, the Marlins made it clear that they were willing to talk about Beckett with any organization that was willing to put together a package of top prospects.

The Red Sox quickly expressed interest. The Marlins expressed their interest in Ramirez.

Red Sox interim co-general managers Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer, along with special assistants Bill Lajoie and Craig Shipley, constructed the deal that ultimately needed the approval of Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino.

After much negotiating, a deal was struck on Thanksgiving Day that sent Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia to the Marlins in exchange for Beckett, Lowell and Guillermo Mota.

"You have to give the Marlins credit, I certainly give them credit," said Cherington, now the Sox's assistant GM. "They had a lot of conviction on Hanley. It was clear at the beginning of our talks that Hanley had to be in the deal for them. There were other players we discussed, and obviously, with these things you're always trying to give up as little as you can."

The Marlins would not make a deal unless Ramirez was part of it. Finally, the Red Sox agreed.

"It was a tough call with a lot of internal debate," Cherington said. "There were a lot of strong opinions, and ultimately we felt like, based on what the team's needs were, based on the premium we placed on finding a front-line starting pitcher that would give us the best chance in the AL East and would carry the torch to the next generation of Red Sox teams, we decided to do it. It was very difficult at the time."

Ramirez made the Marlins' 25-man roster out of spring training in 2006 and became a very good player, quicker than the Red Sox had imagined.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007 with Beckett and Lowell as major contributors.

"We all thought Hanley was a really good prospect. I don't know, honestly, if we knew he was going to be that good that quick," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "That doesn't mean you don't make the trade. I think both teams are thrilled. They get a star, and we ended up winning the World Series. [Ramirez] is a great player, but Becketts don't grow on trees, and Mikey Lowell is the MVP of the World Series. To me, it looks like it worked all the way around."

A few years removed from that deal, the Red Sox believe they have essentially replaced Ramirez with Iglesias.

Ramirez and Iglesias are different players. Both are natural shortstops, but they have different body types and have had different paths into professional baseball.

When the Red Sox dealt Ramirez, they were very familiar with his development both on and off the field. The organization is still getting to know Iglesias.

"Everything we've seen so far is very exciting," Cherington said. "He's got a lot of ability and seems to like to play the game. He's got a lot of confidence, and we're excited about what he can do."

The real test for Iglesias won't come this spring but when the regular season begins, and he has to experience a full season of pro ball and the arduous schedule that includes.

Iglesias and Ramirez will have similar development paths because there's no way the Red Sox will rush Iglesias. They'll likely treat him almost exactly the same way they did Ramirez.

"I don't think it's fair to compare the two just because Hanley has turned into a superstar with a lot of skills," said Red Sox first-base coach Ron Johnson, who managed Ramirez in Portland in 2004. "I had Hanley for 30 days in Double-A, and for those 30 days he was one of the better players I had ever coached -- maybe the best. There are some similarities with their athleticism."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.