GREENVILLE, S.C. – Yoan Moncada’s minor league experience will be . . . different.
Monday marked the 19-year-old’s first official minor league game, as he left extended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., to join the Red Sox’ Single A affiliate, the Greenville Drive. His arrival was treated as an event, underscoring the notion he’s a different sort of prospect from predecessors in the Red Sox system who were permitted a relatively anonymous entry into pro ball.
On Sunday night, the Drive announced Moncada would make his debut on Monday and immediately began selling T-shirts with his name and number (24) splashed across the back. The franchise never before had marketed a shirt for a player who had yet to play an official game.
Major League Baseball sent official authenticators to Fluor Field to authenticate Moncada-related memorabilia from his debut. Such rare treatment had been limited in the past largely to players such as Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Correa, and Mark Appel (all No. 1 overall picks) when they appeared in their first contests, and more recently, to Kris Bryant in his brief time to open this season in Iowa while biding his time for a big league call-up with the Cubs.
The Drive arranged for media availability for Moncada, who accommodated with a 15-minute interview prior to the game (with the assistance of Red Sox mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez, who served as translator). As the Lexington Legends filed into the park, one player eyed the photographers chasing Moncada.
“They have anyone on their team?” he inquired before chuckling at the rhetorical inquiry.
Moncada’s reputation precedes him. That’s what happens when a player becomes an international baseball sensation whom a team spends $63 million to sign. Every step he takes in the minors will be different — more magnified, more scrutinized — than it is for even elite peers.
“He’s going to have to deal with a bit more attention than probably any of the other guys we’ve had,” acknowledged Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett, who was on hand for Moncada’s debut.
“We’d like to do everything we can to give him a normal minor league existence and allow him to develop at his own pace. We’ll do that the best we can.
“But certainly there’s things that are going to come around that are going to be part of what he needs to do that aren’t part of what other guys need to do. It’s a delicate balance. Obviously, there’s something that comes along with the expectations, the contract, and the other things, but from our standpoint, we’re focused on baseball, trying to arm him with the tools to handle some of those things in an appropriate fashion.”
Moncada seemed to find the foreignness of his media responsibilities to be secondary to the familiarity of a return to playing baseball back under lights, back in front of crowds that numbered in the thousands rather than the usual single-digit audiences in attendance at extended spring training games in Fort Myers. As much as he can, the second baseman – who was placed in the sixth spot in the Drive lineup – appeared at peace with the notion he will not fly under the radar.
“I enjoy it. I love it. I think it’s part of the job. I’ve always enjoyed it,” Moncada said of the attention from fans and the media. “I love playing in front of a lot of people, a lot of fans. That was one of the things about Fort Myers that was driving me crazy.”
“I became a little desperate [to start playing with a full-season affiliate] but I understand it’s part of the process, and the important thing is I feel I got better. Now I’m here and I feel I’m ready for this next challenge,” he added.
If so, then perhaps Moncada will be defined less by the size of his signing bonus than by the dimensions of his talents. Or maybe not.
He will never enter a ballpark as an unknown. He’ll always be identifiable, a name rendered familiar by the windfall he secured with his talents.
He went 0 for 3 with a walk in his debut, reaching on an error and showing impressive speed down the line. He made some impressive defensive plays, particularly a leaping grab of a soft liner up the middle, but also offered a reminder that he has work to do when he tried to rush a throw to the plate, and instead ended up letting a grounder sneak under his glove.
He’s still a prospect, still a minor leaguer – just with a prominence that distinguishes him from his peers.
“The tools, the body, he’s what you want to see a big league player look like in uniform. I think what we have to understand is that this is still a kid,” said Greenville manager Darren Fenster. “He’s going to have expectations tied to him with the number that he signed for for his entire career. He’s here for the same reason the other guys are here. He’s got some work to be done in order to get better and eventually move up the ladder just like everybody else.”
The Red Sox believe there will be more of his athleticism and talent on display in the coming weeks, months, and years, that their massive bet eventually will offer consistent evidence of a very good player.
“I think the feeling of the staff [in extended spring training] was that, once the lights come on up here, he’s going to take another step forward from what they’ve seen,” said Crockett.
If so, then the realms of hype and imagination that will continue to precede Moncada can start being replaced – or at least accompanied – by reality and performance, and most importantly, by progress, which is the ultimate marker of accomplishment in the player development world of the minor leagues.Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.