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Why Yoán Moncada is unlikely to be Sox' second-base solution

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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When it comes to their search for a second baseman, the Chicago White Sox are in a holding pattern, baseball's ongoing lockout bringing major league transactions to a halt.

Meanwhile, those of us who don't actually make the moves have looked high and low to dredge up possibilities for the position, a critical need on the South Side in the wake of last summer's trade of Nick Madrigal and the unsuccessful acquisition of César Hernández, whose $6 million option for the 2022 season was declined last month.

The free-agent options diminished greatly when Marcus Semien, Javy Báez, Eduardo Escobar and Chris Taylor all signed deals before the lockout began. The trade options are more plentiful, though trades are always mysterious and hard to predict.

RELATED: Sox trade partners: A look at 29 second-base situations

Is the best option to fill the second-base hole, though, already playing on the White Sox' infield?

Yoán Moncada started his South Side tenure as the team's second baseman before a switch to third base ahead of the 2019 season, the year he broke out with stellar offensive production and terrific defense at the hot corner. Even with the ups and downs at the plate that have followed — you'll remember his COVID-impacted 2020 season — the defense at third base has remained excellent, and he was honored for it as a Gold Glove finalist in 2020.

 

Though the trade possibilities could yield exciting names at second base, a move of Moncada back to second could theoretically allow the White Sox' front office to pivot to an even more appealing third-base market whenever they're able to resume its offseason work. Kris Bryant is among the star free agents who didn't sign during the final days of November. Kyle Seager hit 35 home runs for the Seattle Mariners in 2021 and is also a free agent. Matt Chapman might be the game's finest third baseman and plays for an Oakland Athletics team on the brink of a teardown.

So would the White Sox pull the trigger on another position switch for Moncada?

General manager Rick Hahn actually fielded that question during last month's GM meetings in Southern California.

"Never say never," Hahn said. "But look, he's a pretty darn good third baseman. He's comfortable there. He's an awfully good player. I don't know if you want to upset the apple cart of something that's working. Never say never."

As usual, Hahn refused to take anything off the table, and you'd have to imagine that there have been at least speculative discussions based on the caliber of any third baseman that might be available. That's the job of any big league front office, evaluating all options.

But the general manager's also right in talking about Moncada as being quite good at third base. Based on his big league career to this point, it's pretty clear that the move to the hot corner was a positive one for Moncada, who mastered that position after a shaky couple hundred games at second that saw him make 29 errors.

In fact, if you dial your mind back to the initial switch, then-manager Rick Renteria talked plenty about the benefit of the switch on Moncada's hitting, too.

"I think the biggest concern everybody had when we first moved him to third was the nuances of playing third base would disrupt his offensive side. It was actually the opposite," Renteria said in August 2019. "I think it allowed him to focus a little bit more on both sides of the baseball. ... Some of the things we talked about, in terms of when he played second, were that he might become a little lackadaisical at times because it seemed kind of easy. He stays a little more focused at third."

Moncada's offense indeed showed up, and his 2019 backed up all the hype that he brought to the White Sox organization in that 2016 trade with the Boston Red Sox, the hype that came along with his one-time rank as baseball's No. 1 prospect. He jumped up from a woeful first full season in the majors that saw him strike out 217 times to a .915 OPS, a 140 OPS+ and 25 homers in 132 games. That all going along with the shift from being an error-prone defender at second to a Gold Glove type at third.

 

"It may have been repetition and maturity," Hahn said last month, "but certainly he was more comfortable defensively and his athleticism and instincts were more assessable at (third base) than they were at second."

That great 2019 season earned Moncada a contract extension before the start of the 2020 season, one that will keep him on the South Side through the 2025 campaign. The idea when that was signed? That he'd be manning third base for the foreseeable future.

Now, "never say never" is always good advice, in this case not only because the right opportunity could come along that could convince the White Sox to move in that direction, but also because Moncada is an athletic team player who would likely be willing to do whatever is asked of him. Renteria revealed two years ago that Moncada said he was even capable of playing center field.

"I think third base is going to be my position for a very, very long time," Moncada said back in 2019. "At the same time, I'm open to help the team at any position they need me to play. That's up to them. I'm open to it. But I feel very comfortable playing third base right now."

But while all that might send the imaginations of fans into high gear during Hot Stove season, Moncada switching positions remains unlikely. Remember that he's one of the centerpieces of the White Sox' immediate and long-term future, a guy who's been talked up as a future MVP candidate, a guy who at times has looked every bit someone who can carry a lineup.

Even if you're wondering where the power might have gone — he hit 25 homers with a .548 slugging percentage in 2019 versus 14 homers and a .412 slugging percentage in a dozen more games in 2021 — he was very good last season, posting a career-best .375 on-base percentage and walking 84 times, more than doubling the amount of free passes he earned during that breakout campaign two years earlier.

"I hate to nitpick on quality players who had productive years on a team that won a division," Hahn said last month. "He had a really good year. Perhaps we're a little spoiled by what we've seen he’s capable of doing, so we want to see it all on display in one single season: the power, the ability to get on base, hit for average, play good defense, run the bases well.

"In a season where that all isn't consistently on display, he's still gifted enough to where he can be an impactful guy, like we saw last year, even if some elements lag behind where we think he can be, (specifically) the power."

So even if there are some higher profile names on the third-base market than the ones on the second-base market, the White Sox believe they've got a pretty top notch third baseman in their employ, someone who blossomed thanks in part to moving from second to third.

 

In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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