Yoan Moncada leaves Red Sox impressed after spring cameo

BRADENTON, Fla. -- There's a scene from one of "The Naked Gun" films in which detective Frank Drebin, played by the late Leslie Nielsen, stands before a crowd of open-mouthed onlookers and shouts, "Nothing to see here; please disperse," as a building explodes behind him.

John Farrell did a brilliant reenactment Wednesday.

The Boston Red Sox turned an otherwise run-of-the-mill exhibition into a mini-spectacle by calling up 20-year-old top prospect Yoan Moncada from minor-league camp and starting him against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But as the players stretched on the field before batting practice, Farrell did his best to downplay the Cuban second baseman's presence.

"This is an opportunity for some young players to come over and get some exposure to this environment, the game at this speed, the strength," the manager said in a clear attempt to tamp down the hype. "Today's another one of those games for him. I know we're trying to make something out of this day, but we're really digging deep right now."

Sorry, John. Moncada Mania is something to see.

Moncada's listed height and weight -- 6-foot-2, 215 pounds -- don't do justice to his size. He's built like one of the football players with whom Red Sox starting pitcher Joe Kelly works out in the offseason, so much so that it strains credulity that he would have the agility to play a middle-infield position.

But then you watch Moncada charge to scoop up a drag bunt by Pirates leadoff man Alen Hanson that eluded the athletic Kelly, transfer the ball from the glove to his hand and make an accurate throw to first base, and you wonder if your eyes deceived you.

"Look at him in the [batter's] box, you expect him to be a corner outfielder or a friggin' inside linebacker for the San Diego Chargers," Kelly said. "He's just physically bigger and stronger than anyone I've ever seen at that age. It's ridiculous. Just because of how big he is, on plays like that, just in my head I was like, 'There's no way he could get to them.' But his range and his explosive quickness, I just underestimated him. It's way better than I imagined.

"There's nobody in the history of all of baseball that's ever been that strong and that big. I work out in the offseason with NFL players -- receivers, defensive backs, combine guys -- and he's bigger and stronger than all the NFL guys. But I wanted to see him move, and I saw him move today. Before I ever saw him play, I'd be like, 'He's going to move to the outfield one day. Out of like lateral movements he's like 5 out of 10.' He's like friggin' 9 out of 10. He was explosive today. It was pretty fun to watch, honestly."

OK, let's take a breath to separate fact from hyperbole.

Last spring, the Red Sox invested $63 million in Moncada ($31.5 million signing bonus and a matching tax to Major League Baseball for exceeding their international bonus allotment). But he isn't about to displace second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the team's de facto captain and a favorite of principal owner John Henry who is under contract through 2021 with limited no-trade protection.

Moncada batted .278 with eight homers, 49 stolen bases and an .833 OPS at low-A Greenville last season and is expected to open this year at high-A Salem. And there are areas in which he clearly needs to improve. He couldn't touch back-to-back curveballs from Pirates closer Mark Melancon in the fourth inning, part of a day in which he finished 0-for-2 with an impressive eight-pitch walk against hard-throwing Arquimedes Caminero in the sixth.

"I felt good playing with those guys, playing against actual major league competition," Moncada said through translator Daveson Perez. "It just felt good to be out there and starting. I thank the Red Sox for that opportunity."

There will be others. Farrell said he'd like to see Moncada and a few other Sox infield prospects play together in a Grapefruit League game before the end of the spring.

Ultimately, though, Moncada is unlikely to break into the big leagues without moving from second base, regardless of how impressive he looked in his cameo against the Pirates. Aside from the fact that he's blocked by Pedroia, he made 23 errors in 71 games last season.

Farrell doesn't believe Moncada's size is a detriment at second base, although he allowed that "where he ultimately ends up on the field remains to be seen."

"It all depends on what the team wants from me," Moncada said. "If they desire me to play in the outfield, then I'm happy to do that. But I don't see a change in positions coming."

One thing is clear: Moncada left a positive first impression on the Red Sox's big leaguers.

"How old is he? 20?" infielder Travis Shaw said. "Yeah, he's pretty good for 20 years old. His body speaks for itself how big he is. He's still very raw, but he's got just unbelievable upside."

Indeed, it's something to see.