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White Sox’ Yoan Moncada, at unexpected crossroads, sees ‘very good’ season ahead

Video by Annie Costabile

Please forgive the spectacle as I hop up and down, head cocked to the side, and pound on one ear in hopes that the unbelievable thing I heard White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada say Friday will spill out of the other ear and disappear into the ice-cold winter.

An hour or so before being introduced to fans on the opening day of SoxFest in the South Loop, Moncada, speaking through an interpreter, had this to say about his utterly unimpressive 2018 performance:

“I think [my] season wasn’t as bad as bad as you think.”

Wait, what?

Come to think of it, maybe he’s right. Maybe it was worse.

Let’s not spend too much time on this, but a brief review of the facts suddenly seems necessary. The switch-hitting Moncada struck out 217 times in his first full season, more than anyone else in baseball. He committed 21 errors at second base, more than anyone else at that position. His fielding percentage was abominable, he couldn’t hit lefties to save his life, his overall offensive numbers tanked and, well, who needs to see anything after the “and”?

Suffice it to say, ESPN Films won’t be making a 30 for 30 about it.

What to make of the 23-year-old Moncada as he approaches another season in a Sox uniform? Is there still as much reason to be excited about him as there was this time a year ago, when he was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the major leagues?

Put him down for a “yes.”

“I think I’m going to have a very good season,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for this season. Hopefully, it can be a very good season for me.”

Some of us will have to see it to believe it.

An interesting thing about this SoxFest is that Moncada is almost an afterthought. Of course, the name Manny Machado is on everyone’s lips. Will he sign with the Sox? And then there’s tantalizing prospect Eloy Jimenez. Will he be as dangerous with his bat as Machado someday?

In terms of buzz, Moncada has taken a backseat to those two and arguably others. Even Michael Kopech, the blue-chip pitcher who arrived with Moncada and a pair of lesser prospects in the December 2016 trade of Chris Sale to Boston, seems like a bigger rock star than Moncada these days. And Kopech, who had Tommy John surgery in September, isn’t even in the 2019 picture.

Sale has his World Series ring. Machado has teams throwing nine-figure offers at him. Jimenez is the Next Great Thing.

Moncada? Someday, he might be better than all of them. On the other hand, he’s another bad season from being labeled a bust.

“Let’s wait for the season to start and see what he can do,” said Jose Abreu, his mentor and confidant, through the same interpreter. “I think sometimes you talk and you create a bigger expectation, and that can create something that is not accurate. But we all know the talent that he has. We all know the kind of player he can be. And we’re just excited for him to have a fresh start of the season and to see what he can do.”

In fairness to Moncada, some of the hype surrounding him was pure media creation. When Bleacher Report ranked its top 30 second basemen in the game last March, it put the untested Moncada at No. 14 — ahead of, to name a few, Gleyber Torres, Scooter Gennett and Jed Lowrie, each of whom went on to become a first-time All-Star in 2018.

Some idiot even wrote a story last spring asking if Moncada would become Chicago’s first 30-30 player since Sammy Sosa. Not to name names, but this particular idiot’s rhymes with “Greve Steenberg.” In 2018, the Indians’ Jose Ramirez and the Red Sox’ Mookie Betts became the 39thand 40thmembers of baseball’s 30-30 club. Needless to say, Moncada fell miles short.

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It did appear at times last season as though the weight of outside expectations was hurting Moncada on the field. He disputes that.

“I just don’t think that affected me at all,” he said. “I think this year is going to be a much better year, and I’m just ready for it.”

Last September, the season winding down, Moncada went to the Sox with a request to spend extra time in Arizona to work on his game. To his credit, he spent two or three weeks with hitting coach Todd “Trick” Steverson that Steverson promises were highly productive. He also worked on his defense.

These are very good, very welcome signs.

“I think I’m in a much better spot,” Moncada said.

If he’s right, he could reclaim his glowing reputation in a hurry and return to the front seat where baseball wisdom said he belonged.