The constant roster turnover in minor league baseball rarely lends itself to star players developing strong local followings.
So when Charlotte Knights chief operating officer Dan Rajkowski was approached by Ryan Petrere, the club’s merchandise manager, about producing T-shirts with second baseman Yoan Moncada’s name and jersey No. 10 on the back, Rajkowski hesitated.
Only once before had the Knights sold such an item under Rajkowski, who joined the club in 2006. That was for North Carolina native and former N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon, who made his Knights debut in August 2014.
Moncada, the Cuban phenom listed as baseball’s No. 1 prospect by Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com, became the second.
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“Historically jerseys don’t sell in the minor leagues with names on them,” Rajkowski said. “But when you’re touting the No. 1 prospect in all of minor league baseball, it was worth a shot on the first order.”
That first shipment consisted of about four or five dozen shirts, Rajkowski said. About a month and a half into the season, he said the Knights are now on their fourth or fifth order, which has doubled in size.
This sort of buzz surrounding Moncada has helped make Charlotte one of the most followed teams in all of the minors this season. But his stay might not be much longer.
At the plate
A little more than two years ago, Moncada, then 19, signed with the Boston Red Sox for a $31.5 million bonus, the largest in baseball history. He rapidly ascended through the organization, making his big-league debut on Sept. 2 after just 187 minor league games.
Although he went 4-for-19 in eight games with Boston, major-league stardom seemed imminent for the switch-hitting, five-tool prospect.
Then came the December trade to the Chicago White Sox. The centerpiece of Chicago’s rebuilding project, Moncada was acquired in a five-player deal that sent ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox.
The White Sox have stressed since then that they won’t call up Moncada to the majors until he’s ready to stay there. Thus, he waits in Charlotte, where by most accounts he’s taking everything in stride.
“When you pretty much came out of the womb and you’re going to play the game of baseball, it’s pretty cool. ...” said Mark Grudzielanek, the Knights’ first-year manager. “It’s a lot of pressure, too. He’s got a lot on his plate, and he understands that and doesn’t shy on going out there and getting his work done.”
At the plate, the results are evident.
After a seven-game stretch from April 13-21, when he went 4-for-25, Moncada entered Tuesday night batting .361 with a .913 OPS (on-base plus slugging) over his past 20 games. Grudzielanek said Moncada has a greater understanding of how pitchers are attacking him and is capitalizing on fastballs.
Grudzielanek also cited an improvement in Moncada’s two-strike approach — a notable development considering he struck out in 12 of his 19 at-bats with the Red Sox last season and 14 of 41 in spring training. Moncada has 22 strikeouts in his past 83 at-bats.
“On the offensive side, (I’ve been) sticking to my same routine in the cage, the same routine I’ve always done,” said Moncada about his recent success through an interpreter. “And so far I feel really good.”
Moncada has also made strides in the field. Chicago emphasized in the spring that he needed to improve his defense, and he’s done so under the tutelage of Grudzielanek, a former second baseman.
They’ve focused on better footwork and quicker hands.
“I think there were definitely some things we needed to clean up and go out there and address,” Grudzielanek said. “We did those few things and he’s come out absorbing them every day we’ve gone out there and worked and corrected them.
“He’s really tightened himself up tremendously in every avenue out there and he’s done a wonderful job.”
Despite Moncada’s hot hitting and defensive improvement, a timeline of when he’ll leave Charlotte for Chicago remains cloudy. Financial reasons play a part in that.
Because Moncada recorded his first 31 days of MLB service time last season, the White Sox have prevented him from becoming a free agent until after the 2023 campaign by keeping him in the minors so far this season.
The club can also delay his promotion to keep him from obtaining Super Two status, a designation that allows a select group of players to become eligible for salary arbitration before reaching three years of service.
However, Moncada said he remains concentrated on his opportunities with the Knights.
“I don’t really worry too much about that stuff,” Moncada said. “I don’t really understand it too much, but my job is to play baseball. So that’s the only thing I can worry about is just going out every day and playing the game.”
As long as he’s in Charlotte, the hype will likely only continue to grow. Local and national media members will continue to flock to BB&T Ballpark, where fans will don Knights T-shirts with Moncada’s name and number.
But when Moncada returns to the majors, Grudzielanek believes he’ll make the most of the opportunity.
“Things can happen like that and change the individual completely,” Grudzielanek said. “I’ve seen it happen and unfortunately (injuries are) one issue you can’t really control.
“(With his) mindset and pushing that aside, he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”