PHOENIX – It would be somewhat understandable if José Abreu accidentally showed up at Camelback Ranch this spring.
After all, he spent nine straight Februarys and Marches at White Sox camp. But even if he did manage to make a wrong turn at Albuquerque on his way to his first spring training as an Astro, there’d be nowhere for him to put his stuff.
Yes, if Abreu’s absence this year wasn’t weird enough already, there was his old locker in the White Sox’ spring clubhouse occupied by someone else. Specifically, it’s been taken over by Abreu’s old right-hand man, Yoán Moncada, who’s suddenly become the elder statesman in the clubhouse’s Latin corner.
Who knows if Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert Jr. – that’s right, he’s “Junior” now – will start treating Moncada the same way they did Abreu, referring to him as their dad and snickering from the back row during his chats with reporters. But Moncada might be the unheralded key to helping the White Sox survive life after Abreu.
“That was a decision that wasn’t in our hands,” Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Thursday, his first media session of the spring kicking off with questions about Abreu’s departure via free agency. “I’m very thankful for all the help that he gave me and gave us as a team. We would like to have him here, but that’s how it is. He did a lot of good things for us, and we are going to miss him.”
The White Sox would seem to face a grand challenge this year, entering a season with championship-caliber expectations in the aftermath of the massive disappointment of the 2022 campaign, and they’re facing it without Abreu, who served as the team’s undoubted clubhouse leader, pillar of work ethic and most productive hitter during the entirety of his nearly decade-long career on the South Side.
No one should doubt the White Sox still boast a mighty talented roster even after finishing .500 and missing the postseason last year. But it’s perfectly acceptable to wonder whether they’re worse off than they were at season’s end with their best hitter, Abreu, suiting up for a different team.
For their part, the White Sox believe they can still thrive, still reach the sky-high goals that seemed so reasonable this time last year, without Abreu.
“You’re never going to hear from anyone with the White Sox anything other than José is missed,” Rick Hahn said Wednesday. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still have a damn good team, even if he’s not here.”
“Yes, honestly,” Moncada said, asked if success was still possible without Abreu. “I think that we really have a very good team, a talented team. We have all the pieces to have a winning season and to be a good team.”
Moncada might end up one of the most important of those pieces. He struggled mightily in 2022, one of the poster children – along with Yasmani Grandal – of the team’s shocking underperformance and offensive ineptitude. He slashed just .212/.273/.353 with a wRC+ of 76, almost 44 percent less productive than he was in 2021 and 63 percent less productive than he was in 2019.
Plenty of loud social-media voices consider the MVP-style production of 2019 an anomaly at this point, and Moncada has become a flashpoint of sorts among disappointed fans.
But there’s a reason Pedro Grifol brought up only one name on the day he was introduced as the White Sox’ new manager. Ask the new South Side skipper if Moncada still has the ability to be the guy who dazzled four years ago, and the answer is an easy one.
“Oh gosh, yes,” Grifol said. “He’s 27 years old. He’s peaking right now, body-wise and strength. He’s got the ability to do whatever he wants in the game. It’s going to be a matter of him applying himself and our coaches doing their job. It’s simple.”
Simple? Maybe not simple. But the team and the player are laying the groundwork for a big bounce-back year.
Dogged by injuries and ailments over the past three seasons, Moncada revamped the way he worked out this offseason. He said he did “everything” differently, specifying that he underwent more treatment, exercised in ways that improved his athleticism and received more massages. Who knows if different preparation will yield different results, though.
Moncada battled the draining aftereffects of a COVID infection in 2020. He was banged up throughout 2021 but played on while the White Sox weathered significant injuries to Jiménez and Robert, among others. He suffered an oblique injury at the end of last spring and admitted Thursday that he probably rushed back from that injury too soon, negatively affecting the rest of his 2022.
Can a different offseason approach prevent all that?
Maybe not. But Moncada said he’s feeling great this spring, the changes he instituted this winter already helping by eliminating the shoulder soreness he’s typically felt a few days into camps in the past.
Most interestingly, though, Moncada has seemingly opened his eyes, ears and mind to everything Grifol and the White Sox’ new coaching staff has thrown his way.
“I’ve been impressed with Moncada since I got hired,” Grifol said. “He’s returned every phone call, he’s answered every text. He got here early, he’s in shape. He’s hungry for information. He’s been available. He’s asked questions. He’s developing a good relationship with (infield coach) Eddie Rodríguez, which I think is huge. I’ve been impressed with everything he’s done so far.
“He’s been receptive to everything. We’ve talked about those types of years that he’s had in the past and we talked about last year, and we talked about how to get him to a place where he’s comfortable being himself and playing his caliber of baseball.
“He brings a little bit of everything to the field every single day. He’s got plate discipline, he’s got power. He can do a little bit of everything. Right now, we’re headed in the right direction, for sure.”
When it comes to making up for Abreu’s absence, at least in terms of offensive production, the focus has been on the White Sox’ middle-of-the-order bats, such as Jiménez, Robert and Andrew Vaughn. Moncada, who struggled to keep his batting average above .200 for most of last season, has been mostly absent from those conversations.
But perhaps Moncada can be an under-the-radar weapon in the team’s efforts to not only make up for losing Abreu but to rebound offensively, in general. Grifol brought up Moncada’s name back in November because of his on-base skills, someone who’s drawn walks in big numbers at times during his major league career but obviously got away from it in 2022, with a sour on-base percentage well under .300. Moncada also boasts power potential, enough that he smacked 25 homers during that exciting 2019 season, but watched it disappear in recent seasons.
What about on the leadership side of things? Can Mr. Music Video help fill Abreu’s unfillable shoes in that aspect, as well? Does he have a leadership ability?
“I think he does,” Grifol said. “Abreu’s not here, and he was the leader here last year. Somebody’s going to step up here, and that’s what this is about. We lost a really good leader, but we’re expected to gain two or three, maybe more, in that clubhouse.
“Somebody’s going to step up and lead this ballclub, and he’s certainly got qualities to do that. I don’t know if he’s going to do it or not, I’m not sure who’s going to do it. But somebody’s going to do it.”
Moncada doesn’t have to prove himself the next Abreu. But he does have to prove himself. White Sox fans have been waiting for the guy once ranked the top prospect in baseball to blossom into one of the game’s top players. It hasn’t happened yet, despite the flashes of brilliance.
Truth be told, everyone in the White Sox’ clubhouse has something to prove in 2023, to show that this team deserved the hype that came before the failure of last season. But Moncada certainly stands out, not just because of what he didn’t do last year but because of what he’s capable of doing this year and beyond.
“Honestly, yes,” he said, asked if he thinks he has something to prove this season, “but let’s wait and see once the games start and how things go.
“But honestly, yes.”
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