He had a brief cameo with an East Coast powerhouse that has World Series aspirations before being traded to Chicago. His first full season in the Windy City was pretty underwhelming offensively and he’s left people wondering if he really was worth the trade. Oh, you thought I was talking about Yoan Moncada? I was actually talking about Ryne (or Ryan if you’re listening to 670 the Score) Sandberg. Sandberg was dealt from the Phillies to the Cubs following the 1981 season and his first full season in Chicago saw Sandberg slash .271/.312/.372 for an 86 wRC+ in 1982. Sandberg then followed it up in 1983 by posting an 80 wRC+, and at this point I’m sure people had to be asking themselves if he was truly the answer on the North Side. But something clicked for Sandberg in 1984 after he had already amassed 1,400 Major League plate appearances. He slashed .314/.367/.520 for a 142 wRC+ en route to winning NL MVP and leading the Cubs to the postseason for the first time since the Truman Administration.
What’s the point of this history lesson? The point is simple, not every player develops into a star overnight. Sandberg has a plaque in Cooperstown and I would venture to say if you asked even the most ardent fan of his if he/she thought Sandberg would be immortalized there on Opening Day 1984, you would probably receive as resounding “No.” I can only imagine what Twitter would have to say about Sandberg as he was going through his struggles with the bat. How many people would be calling into sports talk radio saying he should be sent back to Iowa or saying he was nothing more than a place holder at the position until some young, hot shot player that was just drafted worked his way up from the Carolina League?
That brings us to the present day and Yoan Moncada. Everyone knows by now Moncada was the centerpiece of the deal that sent the greatest pitcher in White Sox history to the Boston Red Sox in December 2016 (yes, I’m still a Chris Sale fanboy and that’s not going to ever change). Because he was the headliner in this deal, Moncada has the burden of expectations heaped upon his shoulders more so than any other player in the deal. Not even Michael Kopech with his electric fastball will face the level of scrutiny that Moncada has to deal with due to being the first name mentioned in the trade of a future Hall of Famer. Moncada has already become a deeply polarizing figure on White Sox Twitter where there seem to be two main camps: Moncada apologists and Moncada haters. The first camp seemingly will look to justify anything Moncada does wrong by citing his age or relative inexperience at the big league level. The second camp sees the success of rookies like Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Juan Soto, and Gleyber Torres and deems that because Moncada has not performed at this same ridiculous level, that he is what he is going to be as a player and has already earned the dreaded #Bust label.
Here’s the reality of the situation: Moncada hasn’t met the expectations that many fans, myself included, had for him this first full season in Chicago. While he hasn’t performed on the same otherworldly level that rookies like Acuna, Albies, Soto, and Torres have he’s certainly not the first player that has needed to make adjustments through the rigors of a 162 game marathon season. In fact, there are countless examples of players who came up and struggled in their first 162 games at the big league level, only to turn into All-Star caliber players. I have taken the liberty of cherry-picking some great examples to show you, that just because Moncada slashed a .227/.316/.404 in his first 162 games for 97 wRC+, it doesn’t mean his development as a player is done and that this what we should expect for him going forward.
Baez is a player that has evidently revolutionized the game of baseball in the last 2 years according to members of Twitter and the Chicago media. All kidding aside, Baez is a very good player that adds tremendous value to a championship caliber team here in 2018. But the same questions people have about Yoan Moncada and his ability to hit at the big league level plagued Baez early in his career, as well. Through his first 162 games on the North Side Baez slashed .242/.289/.404 for an 87 wRC+. Yes, Baez added strong defense and baserunning to his profile that was able to make the initial offensive struggles tolerable, but there were plenty of people who wondered aloud if you could rely on Baez to be part of a championship caliber club. Baez has rebounded from the initial struggles, while he still doesn’t get on base at a high clip he has produced a 129 wRC+ in 2018. This will probably result in him winning the NL MVP in 2018. The improvement in Baez’s offensive profile, most notably seeing his strikeout rate decline from well into the 30% range to 24% this season, can serve as a template for what Moncada could blossom into if he is able put the bat on the ball with more consistency.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I absolutely despise the Cleveland Indians so having to say anything positive about a player wearing that uniform is very difficult for me. Alas, Jose Ramirez is another interesting player to look at when examining early offensive struggles from a young infielder. When Ramirez first came to Cleveland, you could essentially knock the bat out of his hands as he put an anemic slash line of: .231/.289/.312 in his first 162 Major League games. Yes, I’m aware Ramirez was striking out with half the frequency that Moncada has to this point in his career, but Ramirez was also making outs at a significantly higher rate. Putting up a 67 wRC+ in your first 162 games doesn’t exactly seem like a recipe for becoming an MVP candidate regardless of your defensive ability to play multiple positions, but here we are. In my mind, Ramirez is the leading candidate to be the AL MVP in 2018 as he is slashing: .303/.414/.640 with a 177 wRC+. Ramirez has already accrued 8.3 fWAR in 2018, and we’re barely half way through August. When all is said and done, Ramirez will probably have a 10 fWAR season assuming he stays healthy. That is a truly absurd turnaround for a guy that looked like he was destined to be playing in Asia when he first came to the Mistake by the Lake.
Brandon Phillips is another former Indian 2B who reached the Majors for the first time in 2002. He played parts of four seasons with the Tribe before being sent downstate to Cincinnati for the 2006 season. By the time he played in his 162nd game, Phillips was slashing a gut-wrenching: .225/.262/.340 for a wRC+ of 56! From 2006-2012 Phillips was the Reds everyday 2B and during that time he slashed: .280/.329/.446 for a 102 wRC+, so he was a slightly above average offensive player. Phillips defense was at one time some of the best the league had to offer at the keystone position and this helped him amass 23.8 fWAR during his 7 year peak. The improvement with the bat that Phillips displayed was particularly interesting given just how dreadful he was initially. All things considered, Phillips turned himself into a very valuable member of a Reds team that reached October on a couple of occasions during his tenure.
Like ole Hawk Harrelson, teenage Steve loved to watch Ray run. During his first 162 games on the Southside, Durham slashed: .266/.327/.409 for a 92 wRC+, so a pretty similar line to what we’ve seen from Moncada to this point. It’s also interesting that early defensive metrics were even less a fan of Durham’s defense than they have been to Yoan at this point. During parts of 8 seasons with the Sox, Durham amassed 14.4 fWAR and was characterized by some tremendous ups and downs largely attributed to inconsistency with the glove at second. Durham proved to be a solid offensive contributor for the Sox by the time he got his feet under him putting up a wRC+ between 105 and 121 from 1998 until he was traded to the Giants in 2002. So could Durham be a realistic template for what Moncada will be if he doesn’t reach his ceiling?
So there you have it, I have taken the liberty of providing you with five hand-picked examples of infielders that had struggles of varying degrees initially upon arriving in the Major Leagues. These are only five examples but there are countless others that I’m sure could be found to demonstrate that many players struggle initially when they come to the show.
Am I saying Yoan Moncada is going to follow in the footsteps of Sandberg and win the MVP in 2020 his third full season in the league? No, but I feel really confident that if he did the Sox have ended their playoff drought. But Steve, strikeouts! You’re forgetting about all the strikeouts! Yes, Moncada strikes out a lot right now. The fact is that a player like Ryne Sandberg never had to deal with consistent triple digit velocity or relievers routinely throwing 92mph sliders with great depth. With that being said, Moncada himself has acknowledged that he needs to adjust his approach at the plate in recent weeks. If he is able to more consistently put the bat on the ball, he will be able to tap into his freakishly athletic toolset. Every player I mentioned above, saw a decline in their K rate as they reached their peak years. So there is reason to believe that with more plate appearances at the big league level, Moncada too will make a reasonable set of adjustments that will allow him to be a more well-rounded offensive player.
Even as “bad” as he has been perceived to be, he has only been a slightly below average player over the course of his first 162 games. To think that players can’t adjust and make improvements to their skillsets is somewhat crazy to me, that’s why I’ve never really understood the pitchfork mentality that is surrounding Moncada. I was recently “taken to task” on Twitter for pointing out that in his rookie season Kris Bryant had a 30% K rate in 2015. He followed that up by reducing that number by 8% in 2016 helping him to tap into his natural power en route to winning the NL MVP. I in no way implied that Moncada has been as successful in his first full season as Bryant, because it’s absurd to even suggest it. I was simply pointing out that a player, even one as talented as Bryant (for the record I think he’s one of the Top 5 players in the league), can have a deficiency in their game and improve upon it. If Moncada saw an 8% reduction in his K rate in 2019 allowing him to tap into his power/speed combo, American League pitchers will have some serious headaches in 2019 and beyond.
So, I’m still bullish on Moncada as a player. While he’s far from a perfect, finished product he still has shown tremendous tools that helped him garner recognition as the top prospect in the game heading into last season. Will he have to put the bat on the ball with more consistency? Yes. Will he have to put an end to the defensive lapses that cause him to get errors in bunches? Yes. To what degree Moncada is able to make these adjustments will ultimately decide what kind of player he will be, I know that’s a pretty obvious statement.
Moncada’s skillset does provide for a wide range of potential outcomes for his career. Like the five players I listed above, there’s many different outcomes that could await Yoan. There’s a Hall of Famer, two MVP front-runners, and two solid, yet unspectacular regulars. Any of these outcomes would be fine for Yoan ultimately. If he turned into a modern Brandon Phillips (although I’m not sure he will ever be the same type of defensive player), that would be extremely valuable to a Sox team that is looking to enter a competitive window in the coming seasons. If he goes the route of Baez or Ramirez, the Sox are probably running over the AL Central for much of the next decade.
Of course there is the other option. That being he never gets his strikeouts in check, doesn’t make enough contact and turns into a middle infield version of Byron Buxton with lesser defense. For the time being I’m choosing not to even think about that option because, well, it makes me nauseous. So everyone, take some deep breaths and remember…development isn’t linear.
Follow Steve Paradzinski on Twitter—Feature Photo Credit: White Sox