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Mickey Moniak needs to play more this spring

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The 23-year-old has looked really good, when he’s gotten the chance.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals - Game One Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

One of the Phillies’ brightest storylines through the first two weeks of spring training down in Clearwater was the surprising play of a former top prospect on whom virtually everyone had given up.

Mickey Moniak was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 Draft, a player who most of the baseball community has already written off as a disappointment. His time in the minors has been fraught with inconsistency and a lack of production. His .741 OPS in 119 games in Reading in 2019 was his best effort as a professional so far, and his cup of coffee in the big leagues last season, an eight-game cameo that featured just 18 plate appearances, just three MLB hits and numerous misplays in the outfield, was ugly. No one believed he would have any impact down in Clearwater this year and it was widely assumed he would start the season as the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs’ starting center fielder.

A bulked-up Moniak entered camp tipping the scales at a little more than 200 pounds, adding about 20-25 pounds of muscle to his frame from when he was first drafted. This is not to say he’s suddenly Mark McGwire or anything, but the change in his physical stature is noticeable. Numerous stories like this one, and this one, and oh this one, just to name a few, noted a change in approach by Moniak in which he eschewed past efforts to swing up on the ball in an effort to hit home runs and returned to a more familiar swing path in which he swings down on the ball in order to hit line drives from gap to gap.

The early results this spring have been promising. In 11 games (12 at-bats) he has five hits, two home runs, a triple and a double with an OPS of 1.583 that is best on the team. Those numbers and improved defensive play in the outfield led to speculation that perhaps Moniak was a legitimate candidate to win the Phillies’ center field job on Opening Day. Manager Joe Girardi admitted he was a “dark horse” candidate.

Now, before you open your bedroom window and scream, “SMALL SAMPLE SIZE, IDIOT!” understand that everyone knows no one can make a firm judgment on any young player based on 12 spring at-bats. What’s required is to see as much from Mickey Moniak this spring as possible, which is why it’s mystifying why Girardi and the coaching staff have not featured him more over the past week.

The last time Moniak was in the starting lineup this spring was on March 2 against the Detroit Tigers as the designated hitter, and the last time he started a game in the outfield was on February 28, also against the Tigers, in left field. Sunday was the first time he received more than one plate appearance in any game since March 4 when he went to the plate twice and hit two home runs.

On Sunday, Moniak went 1-for-2 with another hard-hit ball to his credit.

Moniak was not in the starting lineup for Sunday’s game against the Pirates, either. Scott Kingery started in left field, Odubel Herrera started in right, and non-roster invitee Travis Jankowski got the nod to start in center field. Why Jankowski over Moniak?

Make no mistake, the Phillies’ center field job is wide open, although Herrera appears to be the leader in the competition this spring, the former All Star the player most likely to benefit from Adam Haseley’s groin injury. Herrera had scuffled for much of the past week until Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh.

Odubel went 2-for-3 with two runs scored on the day and, despite not being on the team’s 40-man roster, has been looking more and more likely he will be the guy who opens the season in center field at home against Atlanta on April 1. Perhaps the fact he’s owed $10.35 million this season, whether he makes the team or not, is a factor.

Scott Kingery’s attempt to win the center field gig has not gone at all well this spring. He is just 3-for-20 with a home run, just one walk and a staggering 10 strikeouts. He’s still owed $18.75 million over the next three seasons. Roman Quinn has also struggled with the strikeout down in Clearwater, with eight whiffs and just two walks in 17 ABs, although he is hitting .294 with a .368 OBP. But his defense in center field, despite his speed, still leaves much to be desired.

The competition for the center field job, despite Herrera’s performance, remains open, so it’s hard to understand why Moniak hasn’t gotten a chance to at least prove he deserves to be thought of as more than just a “dark horse” candidate. Does the team want to see what they have in two players (Herrera and Kingery) who are set to earn a combined $14.6 million? Are they trying to preserve another year of service time with Moniak? Or does the coaching staff simply believe having a former All Star in Herrera, despite the opposition by many in the fanbase opposed to his being on the team, is what’s best for the team’s chances to win in 2021?

Whatever the reason, the Phillies should be trying to gather as much intelligence about their former first round pick as possible this spring, even if his ultimate destination is as the everyday starter in AAA.