GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jose Abreu, 32, keeps a close eye on Yoan Moncada, 23, his Cuban countryman at the locker next to his.
Abreu likes what he has seen.
“He’s hungrier this spring training. He’s playing with more of an edge,’’ Abreu said through a translator. “He’s sticking to his routine. He’s more focused. He’s more aware of the things he needs to do to perform.’’
After falling short of the expectations that come with being the top prospect in baseball at one time and the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade, Moncada went to Arizona shortly after a season in which he batted .235/.388/.380 with 217 strikeouts and went to work.
Moncada had already made an adjustment with his hand position late in the season, allowing his hands to be less restricted working through the zone, and carried that into spring training, where he’s batting .355/.477/.677 with two homers, two doubles and a triple in 12 games.
Hitting coach Todd Steverson said Moncada took it upon himself to make things right. He worked with Steverson after the season in Arizona and has a better idea of what he wants to accomplish at the plate.
“It wasn’t about anything more than taking control of his at-bats,’’ Steverson said. “He has the ability to hit. The issue is not [the strikeouts], the issue is taking control and becoming a dangerous hitter. When he puts the barrel on the ball, he’s dangerous, and he knows that. The confidence level is rising.’’
A switch hitter, Moncada’s splits from the right side last season (.209/.287/.297 with two of his 17 homers) paled so much to the left side that some (not in the White Sox’ camp) said he should stop batting both ways. It’s a very small sample size, but Moncada is 5-for-7 this spring with three extra-base hits, including a home run against Cubs lefty Cole Hamels, batting right-handed. One of his 11 strikeouts this spring was right-handed.
“I’m very pleased with the results I’m getting from the right side,’’ he said through a translator. “I feel more comfortable. I feel much better from that side of the plate.’’
Work off the tee has helped, specifically moving the tee to different areas of the plate and “stroking the ball a different way.”
“I made some adjustments,’’ he said. “Working a lot in the cage, trying to get comfortable, trying to get used to them in order to put them into play during the game.’’
Moncada’s talent banked him a $31.5 million international bonus to sign with the Red Sox in 2015, but as Steverson said, ability alone can dominate some leagues, but not the one Moncada’s in now. Perhaps 2018 was a wake-up call. Moncada said as much last season.
“You have a chance to be a starting third baseman in the big leagues,’’ Steverson said. “Why waste an opportunity that’s staring you in the face. They don’t give those away for free, and he realizes that. Regardless of highly touted or ranked you are, you have to perform. All the projections are out of the way. He realizes that it’s time to do something.’’
Moncada is also switching to a new position (which is not completely foreign to him) this spring and is “very comfortable” playing third base after playing second last season. Manager Rick Renteria and Abreu say playing third can help his offense, perhaps by taking a load off his mind with less of the multitasking that’s called for in the middle of the infield.
“Moving to third base has been an advantage,” Abreu said, “for him to focus on the game and to display all the talent he has on the field.”
So far, so good. In a rebuilding year, a step forward for Moncada seems to be an absolute must for the Sox. A strong showing in March is a good step toward that end.
“Yes, I am very encouraged,’’ Moncada said. “It’s good to see all the work pay off. It’s a little test, maybe an indication of good things that can happen this season.’’