CLEARWATER, Fla. – Mickey Moniak spent his first full season of professional baseball as one of the youngest players in the single-A South Atlantic League. He was just 18 years old on opening day and the first-overall pick of 2016 looked every bit as young last year as he struggled through five challenging months.
"I'm actually grateful for last season," Moniak said after sitting in the Phillies dugout Saturday as they fell to Baltimore, 4-2. "That's the first time in my life that I really had to bear down after struggling for a while. I definitely learned a lot about myself, and going into the offseason I prepared my body for 140 games. I think I did a better job of that this year. It was a whole learning experience. There was some good. There was some bad. And I'm excited for this year."
Moniak batted .236 at Lakewood with a .284 on-base percentage in 123 games. He struck out 109 times and worked just 28 walks. The Phillies scouted him heavily as a high schooler outside of San Diego. They said he was the best amateur hitter in the country. And one season is not enough to dampen their expectations. Moniak does not turn 20 until next month. The Phillies will stress patience.
He worked out this winter back home with a personal trainer. He reported to spring training a few weeks early, eager to start a new season. And he came with some motivation. Baseball America dropped him from its Top 100 prospect rankings in January after listing him last May at the 13th best in all of baseball. It was a sharp drop after being the top draft pick just 18 months earlier.
"I'm kind of happy about that," Moniak said. "My whole life in high school, growing up, and even leading up to the draft, people didn't buy in to who I was as a baseball player. What happened, happened. Now people aren't fully sold on me right now and I'm definitely using that as fuel."
Moniak shares an agent with J.P. Crawford, who faced similar criticism last summer as his prospect rankings dipped shortly before he arrived in the major leagues. The two have become close friends and Crawford is like an older brother, Moniak said. He told Moniak to ignore it and "just be you."
Moniak watched his friend Saturday as he leaned against a rail of the Phillies dugout. Moniak was called over from minor-league camp to join the Phillies for a day. He wore No. 88 and his uniform didn't have a name on the back. He was an anonymous reinforcement. He did not play, but the experience was awesome, he said.
He has talked often with Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, who told him to work hard and good things will happen. The manager is intense, Moniak said. He told Moniak that the Phillies will be watching. Moniak walked off the field after Saturday's loss, threw his equipment back over his shoulder, and walked back to the minor-league complex. A new season — and chance to prove people wrong — is a month away.
"The message to Moniak is that it's great to get your feet wet and be around major-league players and in that major-league clubhouse and in that major-league dugout," Kapler said. "That's a great first step. It doesn't always have to be a big dramatic moment on the field. Sometimes, it's just feeling confident and comfortable in your environment. I think Mickey was able to accomplish that task today."
The Phillies tried Scott Kingery in center field as they fell to the Pirates, 4-3, in Bradenton. He played five uneventful innings in center and did not have a fly ball hit his way. The second baseman last played in the outfield as a sophomore at the University of Arizona. The Phillies are trying to make Kingery as versatile as possible so he has a place to play once he gets to the majors this season. Returning to the outfield after a long layoff felt a little weird, Kingery said.
"I think it's going to take a while for me to get back out there and be back to how I was in college and playing there all the time," Kingery said. "I think just reading balls off the bat in batting practice will give me the chance to actually get back to the hang of things. I went out there for the first time in BP and I had no idea what the ball was doing, where it was going. It took a couple days for me to actually get used to the way the ball is coming off the bat again. So I just think playing a bit more and a couple more times out there maybe, getting an actual fly ball in a game, will help me get better."