What To Make Of Moncada

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Chicago White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada (10) lines up against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game in Chicago, on Monday, April 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

As anyone who knows us will attest, my brother and I love to argue with anyone about anything, anytime, anywhere. Since his acquisition as part of the Sale haul last off-season, Yoan Moncada has been a pretty regular sparring topic between the two of us.

I get my brother’s baseline premise – Sale was an unheard of trade piece. A 28-year-old paragon of health who was on a run of five straight seasons of Top 6 finishes in the AL Cy Young race. Who also was signed for about $20 million under market value per year for three more seasons! So not only were you trading for Sale, you were essentially also trading for that “free” $20M in additional payroll you saved on an ace of his caliber.

That’s why my brother was expecting the Herschel Walker return – just an unbelievable collection of immediate and longterm impact assets. And he’s not wrong. One of the game’s few elite aces in his prime with three seasons of salary control and payroll flexibility should have netted baseball’s biggest trade return in the last decade or two.

Obviously only time will tell if it did, but my brother and I differ on whether it’s likely to or not. Oddly enough, Michael Kopech, universally viewed as one the game’s best SP prospects and a cornerstone of the trade himself, hasn’t factored into our discussion much. Which is silly, as his ceiling alone could make the trade a winner.

But even if Kopech is a Maddux-Pedro hybrid, my brother is still gonna be bitter about Moncada being a foundation piece of the trade, because he is convinced the guy is a bust already. He expects Moncada to force the Sox to return him to AAA at some point this season and then ultimately prove to be a big miss. A flawed player who peters out once the inevitable slew of chances he’s given based on his pedigree are used up.

I’m not going to pretend I’m convinced of anything with Moncada – sure, the guy could be a bust. Who couldn’t be? I just think it’s way too early and he’s shown far too much to worry about anything but his health and mental make-up right now. As long as Moncada’s not suffering career-altering injuries or seems to be really emotionally affected by these otherwise normal early-career struggles, I’ve got plenty of time to wait for Moncada to turn into what everyone thinks he will.

In fact, that’s a big part of my faith – everyone is still high on this guy. At the midway point of last season, he was declared the #1 prospect in all of baseball by one of the major prospect publications. #1 overall. That’ll happen when you’re an uber-athletic middle infielder who held his own in the Cuban league as a 17- and 18-year-old. Then put up a .294/.407/.511 slash line across 500 PAs as a 21-year-old between high A and AA. And when your first taste of AAA (after only a few hundred PAs in AA) produces a .282/.377/.447 line in over 350 PAs as a 22-year old.

Even now, when he’s struggled over parts of three seasons, Moncada is still talked about positively by everyone – beat reporters, scouts, talking heads, front office types. If some weird circumstance made this kid a free agent tomorrow, there isn’t a franchise in baseball who wouldn’t line up to throw gobs of money at his future.

But again, I get where my brother is coming from on some level. Wouldn’t it be more fun if Moncada was dominating right off the bat? Instead he put up a .654 OPS in his first taste of the bigs, followed by a .740 OPS the next season, then a regression to a .678 OPS at age 23… does that really impress? Is this guy even going to be a regular? Let alone an MVP and the driving force of a World Series champion?

The answer is yes. Undeniably, yes, in fact. Or at least, the guy who actually put up those OPS numbers at those ages did.

Because those aren’t Moncada’s stats, those are Jose Altuve’s. And while Moncada has seen far fewer plate appearances (only about 250 combined the past two years, to Altuve’s 860 at the same ages), Moncada’s career OPS after his age 22 season (.731) is superior to Altuve’s (.717). And Moncada could really regress this year and still best Altuve’s 23-year old OPS.

Yes, Altuve was way better on the base paths (around 30 steals a year) and was far better in terms of Ks than Moncada has shown. Those things can’t be dismissed and I’m not trying to say Moncada is the next Altuve. What I’m saying is that you can struggle as a 21-, 22-, and 23-year-old and still end up awesome. Even after his break-out season at the age of 24, Altuve still had another step in his development, becoming a perennial MVP candidate when he really tapped into his power at 26.

And I’m not just cherry-picking here. I chose Altuve because he’s happens to be the defending MVP and World Champ, so he was the first guy I looked at. But I could have chosen Jose Ramirez and his sub .640 OPS over 600 plate appearances in his 21- and 22-year-old seasons. Or Brian Dozier and Jonathon Schoop, each of whom had an OPS below .600 in their first 500 plate appearances (and Dozier was 25 at the time!). All All-Star 2Bs who’ve received MVP votes, all struggled as youngsters.

Even guys who are so good at hitting that they have won batting crowns – Dee Gordon and DJ LaMahieu – didn’t post a full-season OPS over .700 until they turned 26 years old. Xander Bogaerts went well over 800 plate appearances until he could consistently bring his production over a .700 OPS. Elvis Andrus had seven, yes seven full big league seasons before he was able to produce an .800 OPS year.

Not to mention all the guys for whom development wasn’t linear. Jean Segura got an All-Star nod for his break-out age 23 season in Milwaukee, then produced sub .700 OPS years twice in a row before moving on to Arizona and earning MVP votes as a 26-year old.

And that’s just my perfunctory look at a bunch of good young middle infield types. You expand the list to all players and really dig in, and we could be here all day listing real plus major leaguers who struggled as much or more than what we’ve seen of Moncada so far.

The kid hasn’t even turned 23 yet, only recently crossed the 300 career plate appearance mark, and has barely 1500 plate appearances between the bigs and minors. There’s pretty much no reason to be declaring what kind of future Moncada will have right now.

He’s too young, too inexperienced, and has flashed too much ability and even production so far to entertain the idea that he is anything near a bust. I’d have to see multiple seasons of regression. Maybe if we’re watching our 2020 Sox and Moncada’s actually worse than he was in 2017, then I’d start to question his future. Heck even then, I’d still think it possible he turn it around (see the examples above).

For right now? Again, it’d be a lot more fun if Moncada were lighting the MLB world on fire, increasing the already exciting national buzz that has started to attach to our Sox in this rebuild. I don’t love all the Ks, the lack of steals, the mental gaffes.

But as it is, I’ve got plenty of time before I’m treating what he’s doing as anything much more than Spring Training. Where you like to see success, but you don’t sweat a lack of it. Instead I’m enjoying that Moncada’s a walk machine, has definite pop, and has looked good defensively more often than not. I like that baseball people still talk glowingly of his various skills and make-up.

And I dig that Moncada’s in a low pressure situation where he can struggle and learn from those struggles without looking over his shoulder, wondering whether he’ll lose playing time. That he’s surrounded by players who are going through the same developent challenges, still figuring out the bigs and trying to prove every day that they belong.

So, do yourself a favor and sit back, relax, and strap it down as you enjoy the carefree part of Moncada’s development, when you can still dream the big dreams without much fear of the worst.

Brian Pollina is a second generation White Sox fan proudly raising a third generation on the North Side.  When not busy trying to get a Sox Mt. Rushmore of Big Frank, Harold, Uribe, and Don Cooper commissioned, he works in the radio industry.

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