Iglesias primed to break out in 2016

Reds hope increased comfort helps Cuban righty soar

Iglesias primed to break out in 2016

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto is long gone from the Reds, but there could be a new harbinger of electricity in their 2016 rotation. There were already glimpses of what Raisel Iglesias is capable of during his rookie season last year.

Iglesias, and the Reds, naturally hope that was just the beginning. To begin with, the arduous task of learning a new league, new country and new culture all at once is largely behind the 26-year-old Cuban right-hander.

"After I have a year behind me, I feel better," Iglesias said through interpreter Tomas Vera. "I feel more confident. I feel I have more knowledge about what's going on. I feel more relaxed. My head is less stressful. I have more opportunities to think about good things."

The comfort Iglesias feels can be seen in his interaction with others. He attempts to say hello and greet teammates and media in English. Though interviews are still done in Spanish, it's clear he wants to learn his second language and assimilate quickly. Unlike former Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, a fellow Cuban who often kept to himself during his six seasons in Cincinnati, Iglesias likes to interact and is often smiling and easygoing.

Iglesias defected from Cuba in November 2013 and missed all of 2014 as he waited to be declared a free agent, signing a seven-year deal worth $32 million in salary and bonus. Then he had to get a visa to the United States.

In his rookie season, Iglesias was 3-7 with a 4.15 ERA in 18 games (16 starts). In 95 1/3 innings, he allowed 81 hits and 28 walks with 104 strikeouts and a 1.14 WHIP.

In the second half of the season, Iglesias started showing some momentum. During a stretch of seven straight quality starts, he became the first Reds pitcher -- rookie or otherwise -- to record at least 10 strikeouts in three consecutive starts. No Major League rookie had done it since Hideo Nomo in four straight games for the Dodgers in 1995.

There are some edges that need smoothing, namely negotiating a lineup the second and third time through. Iglesias had a 2.81 ERA in the first three innings of a game, but it jumped to a 5.45 ERA over innings 4-6. Opponents batted .180 in their first plate appearances, .227 for the second and .268 by the third time.

Right shoulder fatigue by mid-September truncated Iglesias' first big league season by a few starts. The club had him undergo a shoulder flexibility program in the offseason, which carried into the start of camp and put him a little behind. Iglesias made his spring debut on March 14. Heading into camp, he was one of two rotation locks, and he is expected to catch up in time to likely take the fifth spot.

"I think it's going to be a great difference-maker as far as his long-term shoulder health goes, being on a program like that and regaining some of the flexibility he's lost over the years," Reds manager Bryan Price said.

Does increased flexibility, and increased comfort, create the formula for Iglesias to have a breakout season? The Reds will soon find out.

"I know exactly who is going to be behind me on defense. I know more about other people in the league," Iglesias said. "I feel more confident. I feel that I'm getting more experience in the league."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.