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White Sox fans have reason to be frustrated with Yoán Moncada.
The one-time top-ranked prospect in baseball has, to this point, overwhelmingly not lived up to the hype. Outside a breakout 2019 season that saw him receive some props in the MVP vote and earn him a long-term contract from the White Sox, his career has been defined by persistent injury concerns, whether the aftereffects of a COVID infection in 2020 or more baseball-related issues that forced him to play banged up in the years that followed.
Though 2023 started with promise after a star turn playing for Cuba during the World Baseball Classic, it quickly morphed into the same old story, and a back issue that sprung up before spring training even ended derailed the vast majority of his season.
Moncada is finally feeling healthy, be it at the end of a miserable season for the White Sox, whose outrageously disappointing play has produced what could end as the fifth 100-loss campaign in the franchise’s 123-year history. That has provided little solace to fans, given the circumstances, but it has allowed Moncada to show a glimpse of the player everyone thought he would one day become.
In his most recent 40 games, he hit .313 with a .353 on-base percentage and a .535 slugging percentage spurred on by 18 extra-base hits, seven home runs and 11 doubles. In the same span, he drove in 23 runs and scored 19 runs.
Again, this means little to White Sox fans who have watched the team go from bad to worse in the second half of the season. The South Siders entered their final series with a record 37 games below .500.
But Moncada, of course, figures to continue being a part of this team, even if he hasn’t posted a really exciting season in four years. And if there’s one small positive to take from the end of this ridiculously negative year, it’s that a healthy Moncada in 2024 — when his salary jumps up to $24 million — could look like this.
“Honestly, it feels good when you’re healthy. It’s been a rough season, but you can notice that,” Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo after Thursday’s game. “The last two months or so, I’ve felt good, and that’s good. It’s something I can build on for next year.
“If I’m healthy, I’ll be able to do more than I’ve shown. Injuries have been something I’ve had to deal with throughout my career, but hopefully all of that is in the past. If I stay healthy, I can do what I know I can do.”
This, obviously, has been the truth for some time now, and Moncada hasn’t been healthy over the course of a full season since that 2019 campaign in which he hit 25 home runs and posted a .925 OPS.
And waiting for a fully healthy season is far from a Moncada-specific thing when it comes to this White Sox core. Eloy Jiménez hasn’t played a fully healthy season, and his production has been mostly disappointing. Injuries have slowed Tim Anderson in recent seasons, and this one, which featured a significant knee injury at the start of the year, has been the worst of his career. Andrew Benintendi, in the first year of a five-year deal he signed last winter, was made a shell of himself by an offseason hand surgery. Luis Robert Jr. just now broke a similar cycle by playing 145 games and putting up MVP-caliber numbers this season.
Moncada, though, has been one of the biggest lightning rods, if not the biggest one, as fans harken back to the rebuild-launching trade with the Red Sox and that best-prospect-in-baseball hype.
Unsurprisingly, the White Sox themselves still have faith that, given health, that player is still possible.
“There’s no reason why he can’t carry (his production from the last 40 games) throughout the year, absolutely no reason. He’s got the ability to do that,” Pedro Grifol said Thursday. “We are counting on him. I think he’s going to put up a big year next year. He’s motivated.
“I really believe the injury affected him. … He was able to regain his mechanics and his confidence. It’s not just mechanical stuff. It’s confidence, too. This is a humbling game. He’s been completely healthy for about 50 games or so.
“He’s capable of controlling the strike zone, too, and walk 70 or 80 times. It’s not something we are asking him to do he has not done. He’s got 31 stolen bases in his career. He could steal 20 in a season. It’s something we are going to really push, his whole game, and I think he’s capable of doing special things.”
The team’s belief and even the actual way Moncada’s played the last month and a half of the season, though, are unlikely to be enough to sway fans into banking on a big 2024 until they see it. And that’s perfectly reasonable, considering what’s now been four consecutive years of waiting and hoping for that Moncada to show himself.
That being said, no one should close the book on Moncada just yet.
While frustrated White Sox fans are sick and tired of hearing about injuries — trust me, so are the White Sox themselves — it’s obvious that Moncada was dramatically affected by the state of his back throughout the season. And just like he spoke of a complete lack of energy and an inability to summon any strength during his COVID-affected 2020 season, he’s now talking about how much back pain limited him this year.
“There was a moment in the season when I thought my season was done,” he said. “But I never gave up, kept working, did the exercises from the trainers that they gave me. Thanks to that, I was able to come back.
“It was hard. It was mentally hard because it was a sharp pain that was constantly there. It wasn’t on and off, it was on the whole time. It was really difficult to deal with. But the trainers helped me with the right exercises and I was committed to that, and it is why I was able to come back. I would say that’s why I’m here now.”
And so it should come as no surprise that the guy who is reaping the rewards of late-season health believes a turnaround is possible for this White Sox team, or at least that this group is capable of avoiding the same fate two years in a row — considering one big thing goes right.
“We need to just stay healthy,” Moncada said, “and play the game the way we can play, to our best capabilities. If we do that, things are going to go our way.”
White Sox fans would be well within their right to wait to believe it until they see it, considering they’ve heard those “what ifs” before.
We’ll see what Chris Getz has in store, but the entire White Sox core fits into that same category: If they can stay healthy, big things could happen, or at least an avoidance of the ugliness of 2023. Moncada, Anderson, Jiménez, Benintendi and Robert could all find their way back in starring roles for the White Sox. And all of them will need to stay healthy — and prove they can stay healthy — to meet expectations in any fashion.
But Moncada’s September surge, at least, is providing a reason to believe it’s somewhat possible, that given health the All-Star type hitters the White Sox thought they had such a large quantity of could finally emerge.
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