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Real Prospects

There's hype, and then there's reality. And when it sets in, you start to lose faith in all the ratings of top prospects, exit velocities, 100-mph fastballs, scouting reports, interviews of minor leaguers during major league games, and visions of five-tool players.

The flashes of brilliance kindle hope, but the day-to-day results tend to extinguish the vision of prospects turning into stars who in a couple of years will lead their teammates to greatness.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the curious case of White Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada. A near-perfectly sculpted athlete who looks as though he could play point guard or defensive back in addition to middle infield, the 23-year-old is struggling mightily both at bat and in the field.

Manager Ricky Renteria even benched him (along with young shortstop Tim Anderson) last Thursday for what Renteria called a lack of "focus and concentration."

"This game humbles you," Renteria said. "If you are not ready for every pitch defensively, it can also get you, just like if you are not ready in the box or on the base . . . You have to be ready for every pitch. This is a game in which focus and concentration are really required of you."

Let's applaud Renteria for delivering a direct, potent message to his young players, but wouldn't it be lovely if Moncada's poor performance was simply a reflection of his approach to the game?

Checking the numbers, since Moncada got three hits on May 17 in a 4-2 win over Texas, he has just 20 hits in his last 118 at-bats for a .169 mark. A switch hitter, Moncada is hitting .164 from the right side. His batting average has plummeted from a season high of .270 to .221. His 97 strikeouts represent 36 percent of his plate appearances. Over the 124 games of his major league career, Moncada is a .225 hitter.

Only former Cub top prospect Gleyber Torres of the Yankees has made more errors at second base this season than Moncada's seven. But Torres is hitting .283 with 13 homers.

I'm not picking on Moncada. I try to stay away from using the description "athleticism" because it tends to be used to describe a player of color - in fact, I can't recall an instance when this tag has been applied to a white guy in any sport - but that's the image that he emits. He's an athlete, and I'm mystified that he isn't better. Like right now.

Can this be a situation where a lack of confidence is the biggest factor in a player's performance? With each strikeout and error, is Moncada's belief in himself shaken? If so, this would be natural. None of us enjoys failure, but the ability to bounce back is the key.

Was Renteria's move last Thursday another blow to his confidence or a wake-up call? What if Renteria and his boss, Rick Hahn, sat Moncada down and said, "Look, this can't be any fun for you, and we can't let you go out there day after day and play far below your ability. We want you to go to Charlotte. Relax. Have fun. Find your swing and take off the pressure. We have faith in you. Once you get back to the player we know you can be, you'll be right back here."

That's probably about what they said to pitcher Carson Fulmer, another top prospect, when they evaluated his 8.07 ERA and inability to throw strikes (24 walks in 32-plus innings) and sent him to Triple-A about a month ago. Unfortunately, Fulmer has had as much trouble throwing strikes at Charlotte as he did with the big club.

The decision to demote Fulmer wasn't difficult since there is a huge difference between a pitcher who puts his team in a big hole after an inning or two compared to a guy like Moncada who can go 0-for-4 and still have his team win a ballgame.

Consider that last year centerfielder Adam Engel played regularly the last four months of the season despite a shocking .166 batting average. However, Engel is a more-than-competent centerfielder, and the team had no reasonable replacement. With a .213 average so far this season, Engel has improved, but he's still not going to be walked intentionally any time soon.

If Moncada departed for Charlotte, Yolmer Sanchez could play second, and Matt Davidson could be the everyday third baseman. So there are options, whereas in Engel's case, he's been the best choice for more than a year.

Returning to the world of hyperbole and publicity, maybe the White Sox need a different approach. Their so-called No. 2 prospect Michael Kopech has been featured during telecasts by being interviewed by Jason Benetti and Steve Stone. Fans have become more familiar with Kopech than many of the journeyman bodies occupying the team's bullpen.

Fans know that Kopech came over from Boston in the Chris Sale deal. They know that his fastball has been clocked in triple digits. Hahn is non-committal about the timing for Kopech's major league debut, and the kid is well-rehearsed when he says, "I can't control that."

Perhaps the Sox should just leave him alone and let him pitch. Judging from his 2-5 record, 5.20 ERA, and a tick more than six walks per nine innings at Charlotte, it might be best to let Kopech concentrate on finding the strike zone rather than reaching for his cellphone and calling Benetti and Stone. Only the Cubs have walked more hitters than the White Sox this season. Hahn needs guys who throw strikes, and until Kopech can do so, he should remain exactly where he is.

What's interesting is that non-prospect players who go about their business with little fanfare, such as Daniel Palka, Charlie Tilson and Dylan Covey, have been performing better than the guys whom the team has thrust into the spotlight.

Palka, a left-handed power hitter in the minor leagues with as many as 34 home runs in a season, was picked up on waivers last November after the Twins gave up on him. When Avisail Garcia went on the DL at the end of April, Palka was promoted from Charlotte and has performed admirably with six homers and 22 RBI while being a middle-of-the-lineup fixture. A below average outfielder, Palka provides some pop as a DH against righthanders.

Tilson got his chance when the other Garcia, Leury, was shelved in late May. Once a promising Cardinals prospect - the Sox got him in a deal for relief pitcher Zach Duke at the trade deadline in 2016 - Tilson has worked through injuries and shown that he can patrol left field better than anyone else on the roster, while slashing .269/.306/.619. Those are not astounding numbers, although the kid rarely strikes out so he's moving runners along and making the defense work rather than swinging and missing. Refreshing to say the least.

And then Covey, after being absolutely horrible in his Sox debut last season, has arguably been the team's most effective starting pitcher since he entered the rotation last month. The 26-year-old is 3-1 with a 2.29 ERA. His fellow hurlers should watch carefully because Covey also doesn't walk people, averaging just 2.8 free passes per nine innings.

All three of these guys make the major league minimum salary. None has been featured on the team's top prospect list, nor were they adored at SoxFest. The interviews they've given have occurred once they joined the White Sox. They're simply survivors; ballplayers whose dream is to play in the big leagues and who have worked hard to get there.

One thing is certain. There will be roster moves this week as both Garcias have been on rehab assignments at Charlotte and appear ready to rejoin the major league club. Chances are Trayce Thompson and Jose Rondon will either be released or sent to Triple-A, although maybe Moncada will be part of the conversation.

After being swept last weekend by the Tigers, a team the Sox have beaten just once in nine tries, Covey will get the nod this evening at Cleveland where the fellows open a three-game set. Then it's back home for four matches with Oakland.

And you can hype that.


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

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