Yoan Moncada provides spark in rookie campaign

Greenville Drive manager Darren Fenster, left, helped Yoan
Moncada overcome many obstacles in his first professional
season. (Photo courtesy The Greenville News)
Ben Whitehead
Contributing writer

Baseball America announced its top prospects for the South Atlantic League. Lo and behold, a Red Sox prospect was listed No. 1. That man is Cuban sensation Yoan Moncada. Prior to that honor, Moncada received recognition from Boston, being named the Red Sox Minor League Base Runner of the Year.

There are perhaps a handful of people who have seen Moncada every day since he began his professional career. One of those is Greenville Drive (Red Sox Low-A Affiliate) manager Darren Fenster. I reached out to Fenster earlier this week to get his take on Moncada's first year in the Sox farm system.

Right off the bat, Fenster said he and his staff felt Moncada has everything he needs to be a "very special player."

"His overall development was incredibly impressive," Fenster wrote in an email. "And if he improves at the same rate over the new few years that he did with us, the sky is the limit for him, and that's exciting to think about."

Fenster touched on Moncada's base running ability. Moncada stole 49 bases in 81 games and was caught stealing just three times. What Moncada did was special and Fenster noticed a different player on the base paths than he's seen.

"Yoan has true, game-changing speed," said Fenster. "Very few players can make you say ‘wow’ just by the way they run the bases, but he absolutely is in that class. It was as if everyone in the ballpark - including the opposing team - knew he was going to steal, and still rarely was thrown out. The acceleration and overall speed is different from 99% of anyone else who wears a baseball uniform ... and he has no fear in trying to take an extra base.

"His athleticism is on such a different level that I can’t think of a specific player that would be an accurate comparison. He is a big fan of Robinson Cano, but really his body may be the only thing that bares resemblance. Athletically, he has some Mike Trout in him, with that similar eye-opening running ability, in addition to being able do things on a field that most others physically can’t."

Being compared to Cano and Trout in today's game is pretty special for a player who played virtually half a season. But it wasn't always easy for the young phenom.

On July 1, about a month and a half into his career, Moncada was hitting .230/.315/.319 with nine stolen bases through 31 games. He had five doubles, a triple, a homer, and 36 strikeouts.

The next two months, he batted .306/.415/.508 with 14 doubles, two triples and seven home runs. He had 40 stolen bases over the final 50 games of the season and struck out just 47 times.

"There were a number of different factors that went into his slow start that many probably didn’t consider," noted Fenster. "This is 19-20-year-old kid who was in A-ball for the same reason as everyone else - he needed to get better. While he has Major League tools, he is not yet a Major League player. Obviously signing for the number that he did put unrealistic expectations on the kid. He also had a long layoff from playing in competitive game, more than a year, and coming back is not like riding a bike. He needed time to adjust back to the game.

"Once we began the second half, he was with us for a month and a half, had a couple hundred at-bats, and was finally able to be comfortable in the environment. I finally felt like he got the sense of just being able to go out and play without all of the surrounding noise that followed him for the first couple months since signing. Additionally, we moved him from the middle of our lineup to the leadoff spot where his skill set offensively was a much better fit, and he really took to that role well, having hit there as an amateur in Cuba. There were a lot of factors that contributed to his getting off the blocks slowly, but to his credit, he never allowed his early struggles to affect the way he went about his work on a daily basis. He stayed the course, continued to come to the park every day with the mindset of getting better, and he was able to do that, and do it better than most."

Although many project Moncada as a superstar at the highest level, there is plenty in his game to work on before he reaches The Show. He will have plenty of help along the way, and Fenster said Moncada's work ethic is what will elevate him to the top.

"From when he first signed in spring training, to when he first arrived in Greenville in May, to when he ended the season in September, we saw significant improvement in every single part of his game," said Fenster. "And that’s a credit to him buying in to what we, as an organization, try to instill in all of our players. I think the fact that he was able to see tangible success in the games that resulted from the work we were putting in far before the gates opened helped him fully embrace and understand the importance of the pre-game work, and his focus and diligence to that work helped shorten that learning curve."

Yup, the future is bright, Red Sox Nation.