Moncada ready to lead White Sox into contention

(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

At spring training last year, Yoán Moncada was at a crossroads.

The switch-hitting Chicago White Sox infielder struggled in 2018, batting just .235 and striking out a major league-high 217 times. There was concern over his performance against lefty pitching (.209 average, .297 slugging percentage) and he was moving from second base to third base.

One year later, Moncada has established himself as one of the top young players in the American League, and his team hopes to make a run at its first postseason in a dozen years.

“I want to get better overall in my game,” Moncada said Friday through an interpreter at Camelback Ranch. “It was a good step forward last year. Now I want to let my game develop, and enjoy the game.”

He played well at third base, and hit well from both sides of the plate, finishing at .315 with 25 homers. His strikeouts went down, though still high at 154, but he improved from the right side, batting .299 and slugging .500 against lefties.

The .315 mark was third in the American League behind teammate Tim Anderson and the Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu.

“My confidence level is pretty high right now after what I did last season,” Moncada said.

The White Sox acquired Moncada, now 24, and three other prospects, including pitcher Michael Kopech, for ace lefty Chris Sale following the 2016 season. That trade represented the beginning of Chicago’s overhaul, and the White Sox lost 95 games in 2017 and 100 in ’18.

Thanks largely to improvement from Moncada and Lucas Giolito, the pitcher acquired from Washington for Adam Eaton in the same week as the Sale trade, the White Sox moved up to 72-89.

Like most of the White Sox position players, Moncada was an early arrival at spring camp. The emergence of Moncada and other young stars, plus the offseason signings of Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel and Edwin Encarnación, have fueled optimism not seen on the South Side for a decade or more.

“I thought his third base play was really good after transitioning from playing second base the previous year,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s a young man who has a tremendously high ceiling. There’s nothing that he can’t do. He’s one of the five-tool players that we have on the club.”

Moncada wants to steal more bases — he had 10 last season — and said he wants to play in “162-plus games.” He missed more than a month last season with a hamstring injury.

“I feel much better than the last couple of years. My legs are stronger now, I did a lot of work trying to get some more flexibility,” he said.

Moncada says he prefers batting second but “whatever position they give me, I’m going to be good with it,” and now he’s in a spot where he can help younger players, such as fellow Cuban Luis Robert, who will be the center fielder for Chicago this season.

Just as Jose Abreu, now in his seventh season with the White Sox, has done for Moncada and others since he arrived from Cuba.

“Everybody follows him because he’s an example for all of us,” Moncada said of Abreu.

Renteria, managing for his fourth season, is seeing the development.

“It takes a few years to get comfortable playing in the big leagues and finding who you are. They’ve grown together, they start to understand each other a little bit.”

Abreu, who re-signed with the White Sox this offseason, says, “I remind the young players every day that they have to have fun in this game.”

As for Moncada’s advice to Robert?

“Just to be patient, be calm, because you’re going to want to do a lot of things. Just take your time.”