GREENVILLE, S.C. — Yoan Moncada turned the eyes of many in the baseball world to Greenville. A record-setting signing bonus will do that.
Yet there’s a very real chance that, in five or 10 years, Moncada will not be the best big league position player to have come from the roster of the Red Sox’ Single A affiliate. That possibility reflects in part upon the uncertainties of predicting the development of any prospect, even the most highly touted ones. But there’s something more.
The Greenville Drive roster oozes with precocious talent. Moncada’s tools suggest potential stardom, but he’s not alone.
Indeed, his arrival in Greenville created an infield crowd like few others in the minors. There are more standout prospects than available positions on any given night.
At third base, the team has both 18-year-old Rafael Devers — arguably the top 16-year-old bat on the international market when he signed out of the Dominican in 2013 for a $1.5 million bonus — and 2014 first-round pick Michael Chavis, now 19.
At shortstop, 19-year-old Panama native Javier Guerra splits time with 20-year-old Mauricio Dubon, a native of Honduras who moved to the United States in high school to pursue baseball. Dubon is also sharing second with Moncada. The infield is rounded out by 19-year-old Nick Longhi, who moves between first base and the outfield corners.
That’s six legitimate big league prospects for four infield positions. There are welcome dilemmas.
“It’s gotten more challenging with Moncada in town,” said Greenville manager Darren Fenster said. “We have [Red Sox farm director Ben Crockett] and his Harvard degree to map out how many times each guy should be playing each week to make sure they get the at-bats they need to get.”
One American League evaluator who saw the Drive earlier this month, prior to Moncada’s arrival, suggested that three of the position players — Devers, Guerra, and Dubon — have All-Star ceilings.
Through 31 games, Devers is hitting .325 with a .354 OBP and .480 slugging mark. One year after he slammed seven homers in his pro debut, leading both the Sox’ Dominican Summer League and Rookie Level Gulf Coast League affiliates, he’s showing the bat speed and swing path to drive the ball to left and center, the raw materials of a future middle-of-the-order lefthanded slugger.
“It’s certainly unique with the players I’ve seen [in the Red Sox system],” Crockett said of Devers’s ability to drive the ball to all fields as an 18-year-old. “It’s not necessarily someone we’ve had in our system.”
Guerra shows defensive instincts, field vision, and awareness that are striking. He possesses a rocket-launcher of an arm.
“I almost hate it when he throws that hard,” said Longhi. “It hurts my hand.”
In addition, Guerra is adding to his offensive game. In his pro debut in the Dominican in 2013, he didn’t homer and had just nine extra-base hits. This year, he’s gone deep three times with 14 extra-base hits through 30 games while posting a .299/.367/.495 line.
Hitting coach Nelson Paulino suggested that Guerra might develop 20-homer power, and the Sox have witnessed him making rapid leaps in his selectivity.
“He might have the highest ceiling of the group, because in addition to physical tools, he has instincts that are incredibly hard to teach,” said Fenster.
Dubon is the most improbable member of the group. He was drafted in the 26th round in 2013, his arrival in the Sox organization barely creating a ripple. Even he had little idea what to expect in pro ball given his relative inexperience.
“Three years ago, I didn’t realize I’d be playing in front of 8,000 people,” said Dubon.
While he has an aggressive approach, Dubon — hitting .288 with a .333 OBP and .388 slugging mark — has shown an uncanny knack for getting the barrel of the bat on the ball to hit line drives. At a slight 160 pounds but with room to fill out, evaluators believe that he could start driving the ball for extra bases. He’s also shown strong to premium defense at both short and second.
“He wasn’t a prospect when he was drafted,” said Fenster, who managed Dubon in his GCL debut in 2013. “We didn’t know what we were going to have. His work ethic and aptitude has turned him into a guy that we’re really excited about.”
Chavis has shown the greatest gap this year between performance and potential. In Moncada’s debut game, he offered a memorable blast off the apartment building behind Fluor Field’s version of Fenway’s Green Monster, a prodigious dinger that hinted at his potential.
He’s been struggling, however, to make consistent contact, hitting .219 with a .276 OBP and .395 slugging mark while striking out in roughly one-third of his plate appearances. It’s been a learning process, one that suggests that a challenge lies ahead, but that doesn’t alter the notion that he has the potential to be an everyday player.
Longhi has experienced both excellent results (.301/.346/.479 in April) and stretches of struggles (.200/.293/.240 in May). But his middle-of-the-field approach at a young age, while not as consistent as Devers’s, is still impressive, and makes him a meaningful part of an infield diamond that glimmers with promise.
With Moncada joining the rest of the group in Greenville, a significant piece of the Sox’ future could be taking shape. Of course, it’s also possible that one or three or even all of those players will encounter adversity, perhaps even get swallowed by it. In A ball, the potential for a future everyday role or even stardom is constantly qualified by the reality of attrition.
Perhaps players in the group won’t make the necessary adjustments in their approaches. Perhaps they simply won’t be as good against upper-levels pitchers. Perhaps they will be derailed by injuries.
The Sox are well aware of the lessons of stud prospects who missed (or at least have not yet seen their careers take root) for a host of reasons, from Lars Anderson to Ryan Kalish to Will Middlebrooks to . . . certainly, the list is extensive.
“That guy who is the can’t-miss first-round draft pick misses,” acknowledged Fenster. “You never know how guys are going to develop. You never know how and when guys are going to peak. If we had that crystal ball, we’d all be doing something a lot different.”
Yet for the members of the Greenville infield, the sense of possibility is unmistakable.
Moncada does not stand alone in Greenville. He is a part of a group of 18- to 20-year-olds who have a chance to play a considerable role in shaping what the Sox look like in the next decade.
“Especially in this league, having a team this young is pretty incredible,” said Longhi. “If you look at the way these guys play, they don’t play like they’re that age. They play two steps above where they should be at that age. It’s really cool to be a part of.”