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Keeping Moncada Company

It's been 11 games now, and the kid has just four hits. He's hitting .111. Of 36 official at-bats, he's trudged back to the dugout 15 times having struck out.

Nevertheless there have been highlights, such as a line drive home run to centerfield off Jake Arrieta last Wednesday. And the two sensational plays on consecutive batters and pitches in Saturday's 5-4 loss to Cleveland were the finest plays by a Sox second baseman since the famous Tadahito Iguchi gem back in April of 2006. In fact, he's handled all 49 chances in the field without a flaw.

But Yoan Moncada was brought here to hit, and so far that hasn't happened. However, history, along with his immense talent, dictates that it's just a matter of time.

Moncada's minor league performance in the Red Sox and White Sox organizations covered 267 games - a decent-sized sample - in which he slashed .285/.390/.859.

Comparisons have been made between Moncada and Seattle's Robinson Cano, an eight-time All-Star with a .305 career average and a surefire future Hall of Famer. Cano's minor league slash line over six seasons was .278/.331/.756.

Boston's Dustin Pedroia, whose presence at second base made Moncada expendable in the Chris Sale deal, registered .307/.367/.810 in four seasons in the minors before establishing himself at Fenway Park at age 23. Moncada won't be 23 until next May. So he's in good company as far as his stats in the minors are concerned.

We also should note that Cano began his big league career with the Yankees in 2005 with just two hits in his first 23 at-bats. He wound up hitting .297 that season.

There have been many other future stars who emerged from the minor leagues and stumbled out of the gate once they reached the big time. The most famous probably was Willie Mays, who began his career by going 1-for-26 with the Giants in 1951.

Moving closer to home and jumping ahead about 50 years, Paul Konerko had a .214 average after parts of two seasons with the Dodgers and Reds before coming to the White Sox in 1999 when he was 23. Playing a full season, Paulie hit .294 with 24 homers and 81 RBI.

A September call-up in 1989, Robin Ventura hit .178 in 16 games, and the following season he had that epic 0-for-39 streak in the spring when his batting average plummeted to .117. But, like Moncada, everyone recognized the talent, and the Sox patience obviously paid off.

We'll return in a bit to Moncada and his Sox mates, but it's entertaining to look at some ballplayers who were minor league monsters but only marginal major leaguers if, in fact, they ever reached the big leagues at all.

I have a vivid memory of an overfed first baseman named Steve Bilko, who played 10 seasons in the big leagues with six different clubs. After stints with the Cardinals and Cubs, Bilko played three seasons (1955-57) in the Pacific Coast League, which had a reputation as a hitters' paradise. One reason was the dimensions of some of the ballparks such as Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, where it was 340 down the lines but just 345 in the alleys.

This was home for the roly-poly Bilko (he was listed at 230 pounds, but the PR guys were being kind) who slammed 148 homers and hit a robust .330 in those three seasons.
Later Bilko caught on with the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961, and he hit .279 with 20 home runs. However, the next season was his last.

Before Barry Bonds hit his 73 home runs in 2001, the organized baseball record belonged to Joe Bauman, an obscure but intriguing individual. Joe belted 72 dingers in 1954 playing for the Roswell (NM) Rockets of the Class-C Longhorn League. In those days many small towns like Roswell (population about 50,000 today) had professional teams from Class-D up to Triple-A. Roswell, in southeastern New Mexico about equidistant between Albuquerque and El Paso, had been famous for a supposedly UFO landing in 1947. That is, until Bauman set the home run record. He also hit .400 that year and drove in an astounding 224 runs.

Between 1941 and 1956 Bauman played nine seasons of minor league baseball, served four years in the Navy, and operated a gas station on the old Route 66. He most assuredly made more money from the government and pumping gas than he ever made playing ball. Bauman appeared in one game at Triple-A Milwaukee in 1948, but that's as far as he went in the game. Yet his name lives on in Roswell where the Roswell Isotopes of the independent Pecos League call Joe Bauman Field home.

And now Yoan Moncada's baseball home is on the South Side of Chicago. He got a standing ovation when he first strode to the plate a couple of weeks ago. When he drew a walk in that first at-bat, Sox faithful went slightly nuts. That's how dismal things have become.

Moncada appears perfectly calm and focused, but I wonder how all this attention has affected him. Representing the anticipation of a perennially contending team, it would be nice if Moncada had some company to share the spotlight. Now that Rick Hahn has cleared the decks of almost all of his marketable charges - with two months to go on his contract, we bade adieu to Melky Cabrera on Saturday - Hahn might opt to promote a prospect or two to join Moncada.

The most obvious would be right-handed pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, one of the treasure trove brought over from Washington in exchange for Adam Eaton. Lopez already has major league experience, going 5-3 last season with the Nationals in 11 appearances (six starts).

In 111 innings this year at Charlotte, Lopez is 6-5 with a 3.65 ERA while averaging about a strikeout an inning. The kid is 22 and healthy. The Sox play Toronto tonight with James Shields on the mound. Need I say more?

As far as position players are concerned, none appear ready to debut at the major league level. The only possibility could be Opening Day centerfielder Jacob May, who was demoted on May 1 to Charlotte after going 2-for-36 in 15 games. With current centerfielder Adam Engel, a fine defender, slumping (six for his last 42) and May having a decent season at Charlotte despite a .251 average, he might be a logical choice to get a second shot with the Sox.

Tonight's game marks the end of July, a month that's seen the Sox lose 18 of 23 games. Matt Davidson's walkoff two-run homer on Sunday, giving our fellows a 3-1 victory, broke a string of 14 losses in 15 games. The joy and sense of relief were palpable as this ragtag bunch celebrated with a joyous Gatorade-spilling, shirt-pulling, raucous scene. Don't be surprised if the center of such a celebration is Yoan Moncada in the very near future.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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