CHICAGO -- Yoan Moncada is back where he was born to be, on a diamond playing baseball at its highest level. But if he is nervous about it, well, he's keeping it to himself."I can feel the excitement," Moncada said. "That's something that makes me feel happy too. I just
CHICAGO -- Yoan Moncada is back where he was born to be, on a diamond playing baseball at its highest level. But if he is nervous about it, well, he's keeping it to himself.
"I can feel the excitement," Moncada said. "That's something that makes me feel happy too. I just want to try to take advantage of it. ... I feel good."
Moncada begins his White Sox career with at least a handful of advantages over his disappointing experience in Boston last September, when the top-rated prospect seemed like just another overmatched job seeker.
He's wiser after playing eight games in stretch-run heat for the Red Sox, when he struck out 12 times in 19 at-bats. He's playing middle infield, not trying to learn to play third base. He's on a team that can afford to be patient with him. But those aren't the biggest things he's got going for him.
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By a happy twist of fate, he's known White Sox teammate Jose Abreu since he was 15. He grew up near Abreu's home in Mal Tiempo, outside Cienfuegos, two hours away from Havana in eastern Cuba. Abreu says they are guajiro, which loosely translates to "country bumpkins."
They played together with Cienfuegos in Cuba's Serie Nacional in the 2012-13 season, when Moncada was 17, and have been reunited by the trade that sent Chris Sale to the Red Sox.
So when Moncada asked Abreu to pick him up at O'Hare Airport on Wednesday, the 2014 Rookie of the Year was there waiting to pick him up. They fought the mid-afternoon traffic together to reach Guaranteed Rate Field on time, but just barely.
"He is my countryman," Abreu said, with the White Sox Billy Russo interpreting. "It was an honor for me. He is going to be my boy here."
Moncada says the gracious Abreu has it all wrong. It has always been his honor to know the slugger who was called the world's greatest hitter in 2012, after he had batted .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in 67 games for Cienfuegos.
"I was impressed [meeting him] because he was the superstar of our town," Moncada said. "At that moment in Cuba, he was the best player in the country. When I had the opportunity to play with him, I was 17. That was an outstanding experience for me because I was able to see him play and be part of the same team that he was playing."
In Moncada's White Sox debut, he batted sixth and started at second base, sharing the right side of the infield with Abreu. He seemed comfortable from the start, hammering batting-practice bombs into the right-field seats after meeting with a crowd of reporters in the dugout.
Manager Rick Renteria confirmed that Moncada's arrival felt like "the beginning" of the White Sox putting their rebuilding plan onto the field.
Moncada had been with Triple-A Charlotte, awaiting the callup. The switch-hitter entertained fans there, using his speed-power combination for 12 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 80 games. He also struck out 102 times but that didn't stop the White Sox from summoning him after Todd Frazier was traded to the Yankees on Tuesday night.
Abreu didn't hide his personal feelings when asked about the conflicting emotions he might have felt in bidding Frazier and pitchers Player Page for David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle farewell after that 1-0 loss to the Dodgers. He said he respected the players who were traded but mostly felt excitement for the change of directions.
"I was really happy for [Moncada] and to have him here," Abreu said.
From Minnie Minoso to Orlando Hernandez, the White Sox have a rich history of Cuban players. Abreu says he is only paying it forward by helping Moncada get his career rolling.
"When I made my debut with this team, Alexei [Ramirez] was here, [catcher Adrian] Nieto was here, and they helped me a lot to get to this new process and to enter that first season," Abreu said. "I appreciated that. That's why, now, I want to give him as much as I know and as much help as I can give to him."
It's unclear how much time they will have together.
Abreu is 30 and eligible to hit free agency after 2019. He remains one of baseball's most consistent run-producers, driving in 100-plus runs each of his three seasons in the American League, and could find himself subject of a trade if the White Sox aren't convinced he has enough shelf life to contribute to their teams in 2020 and beyond.
"For my time with the team, I don't know," Abreu said. "I would like to spend my whole career with this team and to play with [Moncada] my whole career now. But I also understand that this is a business and there are decisions you cannot control."
Best-case scenario for the White Sox is that this becomes Moncada's team in a few years. He could become their version of the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, a young veteran who helps prospects like Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Zack Collins, Jake Burger and Blake Rutherford learn their way around the league.
It would make a nice story if Abreu was still in the picture when the White Sox started winning. But like he said, there's a business side to baseball and it impacts everyone. All Moncada and Abreu really know is it's nice to be together, however long it lasts.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.