Red Sox Cuban Phenom Yoan Moncada More Than Flashy Cars, Hype and Muscles

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Red Sox Cuban Phenom Yoan Moncada More Than Flashy Cars, Hype and Muscles
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

FORT MYERS, Fla.  It's Yoan Moncada's turn.

After 90 minutes of fielding drills, the prospect one major league scout labeled "the closest thing to [Mike] Trout I've seen," per Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, finally gets to take batting practice.

With a chiseled, 6'2", 205-pound frame that Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly likened to a "friggin' inside linebacker," Moncada divides his cuts evenly between the right and left side of the plate. It's hard to see a weak side in his swing or when contact is made. The approach is a model of controlled anger. It is as fierce as it is fluid.

There are no BP home runs this day, but steady line drives to left, center and right from both sides of the plate give onlookers a taste of what they came to see.

Moncada departed from Cuba in 2014 and took a disjointed international journey, complete with secret workouts, before signing with the Red Sox 13 months ago.

"I'm not sure we've ever had someone quite like him physically in our system," said general manager Mike Hazen, who has worked with the Red Sox since 2006. "Bo Jackson was a guy built that way. Of course, he played football, too. But no one we've had in our system."

uncredited/Associated Press
After defecting from Cuba, Yoan Moncada signed a $31.5 million deal with the Red Sox in March of 2015.

That physical talent and the baseball potential it carries pushed the Red Sox to sign Moncada for a record-shattering $31.5 million in March 2015. Due to the MLB luxury tax imposed on the deal for exceeding the allotted international signings bonus pool, however, his cost to the team was $63 million.

That was $63 million for a then 19-year-old who played 101 games of organized baseball in Cuba. All of it based on possibility. So what have the Red Sox gotten for so much of John Henry's money?

If they're right, they get a player whose potential appears limited only by how quickly he can reach the majors. If they're wrong, they get another entry on a long list of multimillion-dollar busts.

On the No. 3 practice field behind JetBlue Park, Moncada cannot hide his mere 20 years, even behind designer sunglasses and a Red Sox helmet.

"He's strong," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "Athletic. He's a physically gifted player. A lot of people are excited to see him play in our uniform. He's extremely talented for sure.

"Talented players are going to command large signing bonuses. Our ownership made a significant investment in him. I know the due diligence that [former GM Ben Cherington] and everyone in the international department did. They felt comfortable with that investment. We're excited he's in our organization."

Moncada told Bleacher Report in remarks translated from Spanish that his goals for 2016 are simple. 

"Steal 100 bases and keep focused on reaching the big leagues."

While he may not reach the big leagues this year, he swiped 49 bases on 52 attempts last season in 81 games at Low-A Greenville. He also hit. 310 with a .415 on-base percentage and 25 extra-base hits (16 doubles, two triples, seven homers) in his last 56 games (.278 overall with an .817 OPS).

Those numbers earned Moncada Minor League Player of the Year honors in the Red Sox organization.

But Moncada was not invited to the Red Sox's major league camp this year, and he will likely start the season at High-A Salem (Virginia)three levels shy of his MLB goal. 

As far as the Red Sox are concerned, he remains right on schedule.

"His expectations for how hard the game is, and the work that's needed, mostly on the defensive side, we've seen that grow by leaps and bounds since last year," Hazen said.

"The amount of time and energy he spends on his defense. We're watching him grow up that way. It's been really positive. He made a lot of strides on that in Greenville [South Carolina] last year from when he got there until the end. We believe he can be an offensive player. He can run. He's a pretty dynamic player."

'Basic is important'

For 115 minutes on this sunny and windy March morning, Moncada labors on the basics of baseball.

Fielding. Throwing. Running. Hitting.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Rollers to second, baserunning situations, force-outs, double plays, man on first, man on second, man on third and fungoes fielded from his knees. Not everything was perfect. He overran second base once and the ball fell harmlessly into center field. A few other grounders were simply missed. He even changed gloves from white to black.

Coaches watch every move.

"Basic is important. Being able to do the fundamentals the right way is important for all our young players," Hazen said. "He's not any different. We do that with every one of our minor league players. The game is more challenging if you move up, but if you have a solid knowledge of the fundamentals, you'll be that much more prepared."

The feedback is constant—always in Spanish—and it modulates between encouraging and blunt in tone.

Moncada chats in Spanish with teammate Chris Marrero on and off the field. The two and their teammates share a makeshift steel bench in a dugout barely suitable for Little League.

When the day's workout is finished, a group of seven or eight fans ask for and receive Moncada's signature on various pieces of baseball swag.

"We'll see you on the cover of Sports Illustrated some day," one says.

There is a nod.

Two fans ask Moncada to pose for a photo.

He obliges.

But he doesn't smile. He hasn't smiled all day, so why start now?

He walks off the practice field alone, the last player to depart.

The journey from Cuba to the United States for Moncada wasn't as simple as buying a plane ticket and leaving town. Moncada needed permission granted by his team in Cuba, the Cuban military and the Cuban baseball league. He received it and was given a passport. His first stop was Ecuador.

Part A-Rod, part Machado

It's easy for the Red Sox and their fans to smile when pondering Moncada's potential. Baseball America ranked him the No. 3 overall MLB prospect entering 2016.

The Boston Herald's Scott Lauber (now with ESPN) raved in January that Moncada could be the "best 20-year-old baseball player on the planet" and likened his appearance to a "combination of Alex Rodriguez (circa 1996) and Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado."

Moncada turns 21 on May 27. If the plan holds, future stars will be compared to the "young Moncada."

That type of anticipatory career success means little to new Red Sox minor league hitting coach Greg Norton. A former batting coach at Auburn, Norton spent parts of 13 seasons with six different major league teams. Like Moncada, Norton hit from both sides of the plate.

As a big league veteran-turned-coach, Norton said his focus when it comes to Moncada would be on what he sees and not what he's heard.

"He's an impressive player," Norton said. "Built really well. Strong from both sides of the plate. Right now, I have to see him play.

"If you have talent, it's not hard to get to the big leagues, it's hard to stay. It's about adjusting to other teams. As an ex-player, I'm mindful of too much information and I'm trying to observe."

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Norton said spring training does provide an adequate baseline to evaluate talent. "As a coach, I'm trying to build a relationship and establish trust by talking to them. What do you do that's going well and not going well?"

A knee injury scuttled the Red Sox's plans for Moncada to play winter ball in Puerto Rico. The bulk of his time during weekdays in the offseason was spent working on those fundamentals of hitting, fielding, running and throwing in Fort Myers.

'He's still just a kid'

David Hastings, a certified public accountant in Gulfport, Florida, is Moncada's improbable agent.

During his first year in America, when he wasn't playing baseball, Moncada lived in an apartment adjacent to Hastings' home. Last year, he purchased a home on the same street, three houses down. Hastings' wife, Jo, was born in Cuba and currently runs a restaurant in St. Petersburg.

The couple serves as surrogate parents for Moncada.

And, yes, Jo Hastings would swat Moncada with a pillow if he chose to sleep in too late or scold him if his room wasn't kept clean.

"He's still just a kid," Hastings told Bleacher Report. "My wife really has taken to him as a son. It's no-holds-barred. If she's mad at him, she lets into him.

"She's able to talk to him and his parents. Making sure his parents were comfortable with us helping him and treating him like a son, that was a huge part of the equation. Once the parents trusted her and me at the same time, it made the journey a lot more comfortable every day. Hearing the same things from my wife and his parents, and his parents telling him they are placing their trust in us, helps us in guiding him in his future."

While any 20-year-old minor leaguer is trying to learn how to hit a curve or improve his flexibility when it comes to pivoting on a double play, Moncada also carries the extra burden of doing so in a country that bears virtually no resemblance to the one in which he which he was raised.

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

"We try to develop all our players and expose them to real-life scenarios. We're college for a lot of these kids," Hazen said. "We work really hard to try to present them with as many skills from a development perspective [as possible]. Whether it's English as a second language. That's something we work hard on. It's important we take care of him. Not just the guy on the field, but the guy off the field."

What has been Moncada's biggest challenge?

"Learning English and being without my parents," he told Bleacher Report.

Moncada hasn't seen his parents since June 2014, but they speak on a regular basis. He sends his parents and younger sister money regularly, Jo Hastings said.

"He's getting better with his English," Jo said. "'I'm hungry.' He has that one down."

If you want to know what Moncada is like away from the diamond, she offers this simple description: "He's a 20-year-old kid, at home on the couch playing Playstation, snacking on a box of Twinkies." 

'Very, very, very nervous'

In many spring training camps, the presence of a $31.5 million minor leaguer from Cuba—who cost his team twice that much—toiling away on a practice field might be the source of never-ending angst, speculation, scrutiny and chatter.

But these are the Boston Red Sox, and they have no shortage of storylines on the 2016 marquee, from David Ortiz's final season to David Price's first season in Boston to the rebuilt bullpen to the team trying to shake off the stench of last-place finishes in the AL East three out of the past four seasons.

That has left Moncada virtually free to learn how to become a major leaguer with little distraction or fanfare—a critical advantage for a far-from-finished product.

Moncada made his MLB spring training debut on March 9, against Pittsburgh in Bradenton, Florida.

Though he told B/R he was happy to be facing big league competition, he also said he was "very, very, very, nervous" as the game began. "When I went up that to plate, it wasn't real. I was thinking, 'Wow, what have I gotten myself into?'"

Moncada was a bit more relaxed as the game progressed. He played six innings and went 0-for-2 with a walk.

"I was glad when it was over," Moncada said. "When I got pulled out, I felt relief. It was like the most nerve-racking day of my life."

His second game, against the Rays on Sunday, saw him get his first hit of the spring, but he also bungled what would have otherwise been a sure double-play grounder. It served as a reminder that he made 23 errors in just 71 games last season.

"Defensive side of things is a clear area of development for him," Farrell told reporters after the Rays game. "I think to be in this setting, the speed of the game, this is helpful for him. There's work to be done defensively."

Moncada said he's "most comfortable" at second base and told B/R his coaches haven't discussed him playing another position—yet.

"The main thing I'm working on is movement from side to side," he added Sunday through Red Sox translator Daveson Perez, per Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal.  

Meanwhile, Red Sox veteran incumbent second baseman Dustin Pedroia is under contract—complete with a no-trade clause—through 2021.

Pedroia doesn't appear worried about Moncada or anyone else taking his roster spot, but he's not ready to coast into 2016, either.

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

"You have to get better, no matter what level you're at. Facts are facts. If he improves, he will be in the big leagues," he told WEEI's Rob Bradford. "Does [talk of Moncada playing second base] bother me? It's an open competition. You think it's my first picnic? You think I shy away from competition? No. Not at all. We all have to keep proving ourselves."

Moncada, too, is very aware that he must prove himself on multiple levels of organized ball before challenging Pedroia or anyone else on the Red Sox's 25-man roster.

"Stepping onto the field in Boston for the Red Sox. Everything I'm doing right now is to make sure that happens. And I can't imagine what that will feel like," Moncada told B/R.

The anti-Puig?

At first cynical glance, the geographic origins and physical stature along with the money and hyperbole showered upon Moncada trigger comparisons to another Cuban superstar—Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.

Puig's litany of clubhouse tiffs, tardiness, me-first antics and off-the-field woes led one ex-Dodgers teammate to tell B/R's Scott Miller that Puig is "the worst person I've ever seen in this game."

Moncada, at least thus far, has been the anti-Puig. He labored through a season in the minors with barely a ripple of news or notoriety.

"He's continuing to mature as a human being and a baseball player," David Hastings adds. "He's still getting accustomed to a world he never grew up in. When you come from a country like Cuba and have nothing, and then all of a sudden you're showered with millions of dollars and you can buy anything, it's overwhelming."

'Take care of his business first'

Luis Tiant pitched for the Red Sox from 1971 to 1978 and won a pennant in 1975 during a career that spanned six teams and parts of 19 seasons.

Now 75, Tiant was born in Cuba and signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1961 prior to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that sealed off Cuban-American relations. His introduction to America and pro baseball was a galaxy away from the welcome received by the likes of today's Latin players—both in terms of finances and acceptance.

Despite the differences in era, the former Red Sox star has become an important source of wisdom for the team's newest potential star.

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

"We've talked about what to do and what not to do," Tiant said. "He's not supposed to try and go crazy, or throw all his money away. I told him he has to take care of his business first.

"It's hard for a young kid like that to get that kind of money. You can only tell him so much, since I never got that kind of money when I was his age. You can tell him what not to do: Don't go out and get in trouble, get caught speeding, drinking, stuff like that. You have to behave."

Tiant finally returned to Cuba in 2008 after 48 years away. He is scheduled to return to the island later this month as part of MLB's exhibition series there. He believes the sacrifices he and other Latin ballplayers of the past made are not lost on Moncada.

"He's a good kid. I like him," Tiant said. "He shows me respect. He behaves properly. The family has taught him good manners. If he keeps it up, he'll be fine.

"He respects [the older players], as do the other Cubans [Rusney Castillo and Yoenis Cespedes]. They're not fresh. They call you 'Senor Tiant' or 'Mr. Tiant.' It makes you feel old. But it's a good thing. When you respect people, you can go a long way. People want to be around you."

All revved up

With his talent and salary, Moncada is not your typical minor leaguer. And one need not look any further than the parking lot to see that. It's where the young star has started amassing a collection of cars that can simply be described as spectacular.

Moncada's high-end collection consists of a Lamborghini and two BMWs from Alex Vega's Auto Firm, a Miami-area garage that customizes cars for "more than 300" MLB ballplayers, according to Vega, including Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez of the Red Sox and Cespedes of the Mets. The combined cost of three vehicles and their modifications, according to Vega, is about $615,000.

"There's also a competitive drive among players over their rides," Vega said. "They love their cars. You're on a team and everyone on that team can afford any car they want. Many of them want their car and want it different. They always try to outdo each other."

Moncada's affinity for expensive automobiles has drawn criticism on social media and among some in the baseball press. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote Sunday that Moncada "flaunting his expensive car collection in the parking lot of a Fort Myers hotel isn't very becoming for a player who hasn't played one inning in the major leagues."

Courtesy of Alex Vega/The Auto Firm

An understanding of Moncada's background offers perspective when it comes to some of his four-wheeled purchases, Jo Hastings said. The first thing he bought once his bonus check cleared was a gold chain.

"He used to walk or hitchhike to his games in Cienfuegos on a dirt road," Jo Hastings said. "He was paid $4 a month to play baseball in Cuba. He's 20. He's a multimillionaire now. I know if I was a 20-year-old millionaire, I would have parked myself at Fashion Week in Paris. I'm happy for him. I'm not going to criticize him for that. But a lot of people are riding his coat-tails. I love the kid like a son. I want him to be a Chris Archer. To be a humble kid on his time off and go to Africa and spend time with kids."

As Moncada proudly proclaimed to Vega, "Boston is going to know my name."

The Red Sox certainly hope so.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Jo Hastings translated Moncada’s remarks from Spanish to English to Bleacher Report for this story.

Bill Speros can be reached at bsperos1@gmail.com. He tweets at @RealOBF.

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