The Situation: Waking up on September 1st, the Red Sox sit two games out of the AL East lead and are atop a perilous seven-teams-within-six-games scramble for the two AL Wild Card spots. There’s one lineup spot that could be obviously upgraded, third base, where Travis Shaw has struggled mightily of late, and Aaron Hill hasn’t hit a lick since being acquired from Milwaukee. Yoan Moncada is one of the two best prospects in baseball. Hey, he can play third, right?
Background: Moncada, probably the most touted Cuban baseball prospect of his generation, left the island shortly after turning 19 in June 2014 to seek a contract in American baseball. He’d already played two seasons for Cienfuegos in Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top baseball league, and starred in various international competitions. After a lengthy delay due to political issues involving Major League Baseball and the United States Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control, Moncada ultimately signed a minor-league deal with the Boston Red Sox for $31.5 million, shattering all previous records for an international prospect signed to a minor-league deal. In addition to his bonus, the Red Sox had to pay an additional $31.5 million penalty to MLB, as Moncada was part of an extreme overage in their 2014-15 international signing bonus pool.
After being held back in extended spring training to acclimate to the United States, the switch-hitter was assigned to Low-A Greenville in mid-May 2015. He struggled initially, but ended the season scorching hot, hitting .278/.380/.438 overall with 49 steals. We ranked him as the seventh-best prospect in baseball entering 2016. Moncada tore through High-A in the first half of 2016 (.307/.427/.496, 36 steals) and rose to second on our 2016 midseason list. After bashing around the ball some more for 45 games in Double-A (.277/.379/.531), the Red Sox have decided now is the time for Moncada, following in the footsteps of Andrew Benintendi’s lightning-fast and successful rise to the majors.
Scouting Report: Moncada is one of the most physically blessed players in all of baseball. His physique is such that he should beware the attack of a wild boar sent by his enemies. He’s a high-end 70 runner that stole 94 bases over just 187 minor league games, at an astoundingly high 86.2 percent clip. His raw power is an easy plus. His arm strength is plus-plus, although it plays down in game situations due to accuracy and mechanics. It all looks and feels right for a five-tool major league package.
From the left side of the plate, Moncada takes mighty swings from a slightly open stance and generates extreme bat speed. It’s a gorgeous-looking swing, and he hits the ball with authority to all fields. The downside is that there’s considerable swing-and-miss because he’s taking such a vicious hack, but it is controlled violence, as he barrels the ball a lot and that might be an acceptable trade-off for his game. As Moncada saw better pitching in Double-A, his strikeout rate rose to over 30 percent. As noted above, his raw power is an easy plus, and he’s been actualizing it into game power more at the Double-A level than in A-ball; his overall offensive performance was slightly better in Portland than at the lower levels. From the right side of the plate, Moncada will shorten up a bit, giving back some of the bat speed for the ability to more consistently pull the ball to the left side. He has looked like a considerably improved hitter with his right-handed swing in 2016 compared to 2015 looks, but it’s actually produced worse splits, albeit in small sample sizes. His speed gives him the ability to beat out anything slightly more difficult than the routine grounder to that side of the infield. If there’s a small nit to pick here, it’s that he’ll sometimes get off-balance while swinging, leaving his swing with an unfinished look and generating weak contact while hindering his ability to get out of the box quickly.
Adding to the offensive profile, Moncada’s plate approach is unusually advanced for his age and background. He has a very good idea of which pitches he wants to swing at and which pitches he doesn’t, and has posted commensurate high walk rates at all levels. If anything, he might be a bit too passive sometimes; something to watch for is if Moncada starts taking too many borderline called third strikes against major league pitchers that can often put the ball right on the black. Overall, he’s a very smart and heady player that has repeatedly made quick adjustments throughout the minor leagues.
The major question for Moncada moving forward is his defensive home. He played all over the diamond in Cuba, including second, third, short, and center. The Red Sox decided to play him exclusively at second base until just a few weeks ago, a somewhat curious decision given that Dustin Pedroia appears entrenched there through 2021 and has already forced Mookie Betts to the outfield. Moncada’s glove at second was fine, but nothing special given his outstanding physical tools. In preparation for this call-up, the Red Sox started playing him at third in mid-August. Reports on his defensive abilities at third have varied wildly in that short period of time, as you might expect for a talented player’s first professional exposure to the position. His arm and range should match well with the position, but as Boston manager John Farrell recently noted, Moncada needs repetitions to improve his fundamentals and technique. If he can’t stick at third, he’d likely ultimately end up in the crowded Boston outfield picture.
Immediate Big League Future: Moncada is coming to the majors with only 45 games at the Double-A level and only ten games at third base, so it could be a bumpy ride. He’s certainly got a shot to play regularly given how terrible Shaw and Hill have been lately, and should play as much as his glove will allow. Boston has been unusually good at assimilating top young players like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts into the lineup over the past few years while sliding them around the diamond as necessary, so he’s in the right place to succeed. If it all comes together, this is baseball’s newest superstar. —Jarrett Seidler
Fantasy Take: Because Boston’s third base situation has recently been as unfortunate as Steve McClaren’s hair island, the Red Sox have opted to push their best prospect, 21-year-old Yoan Moncada, to the big leagues to compete for regular playing time. He projects to eventually hit for power and average in the majors. He compiled an impressive .298/.411/.518 slash line with 31 doubles, six triples, and 15 homers between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. That statistical smorgasbord illustrates just how dynamic he could be for fantasy owners. Oh, and I should’ve mentioned that he’s already stolen 45 bases this year.
Some drawbacks exist, though. He’s quite young and had a 30.7 percent strikeout rate in Double-A, which suggests that he may not hit the ground running in the majors—at least in terms of hitting for average. His speed on the bases should play immediately for fantasy owners. But it’s unclear if the Red Sox are prepared to throw Moncada into the deep-end of the pool in an effort to see if he can swim. On one hand, Aaron Hill is hitting .194/.265/.247 since joining the Red Sox and Travis Shaw has only managed to post a .189/.268/.360 slash line in the second half, so it’s difficult to see what they would be losing if Moncada does struggle.
One or two fantasy owners who have saved their FAAB dollars are going to bet the house on Moncada. It’s probably going to take $30-40 in mixed leagues to grab the uber-prospect, if not more, with AL-only leagues probably adding another $10-20 to that range. I’m not sure it’s necessarily worth it in September, given the opaqueness of his playing-time situation and the chance that he struggles to make the jump from Double-A to the majors, but there aren’t going to be too many potential five-category difference-makers who get called up in September. Moncada is one of them. If you’ve got the FAAB, push it in. —J.P. Breen