LAKEWOOD, N.J. — A little less than an hour before first pitch at FirstEnergy Park, a handful of eager autograph seekers pushed their way toward the end of the BlueClaws’ dugout.
With the meat of the Phillies’ farm system playing at Triple A Lehigh Valley and Double A Reading, it was clear whose autograph they all wanted — Mickey Moniak.
For the No. 1 overall selection in last year’s MLB draft, it’s been just more than a year since he inked his first pro contract at age 18. And after living out of a hotel in Clearwater, Florida, for most of the past year, Moniak has settled in as Lakewood’s everyday centerfielder and No. 3 hitter.
At 19 years old, he’s just trying to enjoy the ride.
“There’s been a lot of positives and I’m excited for the future,” Moniak said Wednesday. “I’ve gotten a lot of ABs under my belt. The biggest thing for me is staying healthy and learning to play all day as well as adjusting to higher-level pitching. It’s been fun.”
When the Phils went on the clock with the first pick last June, there was no consensus top prospect. Among the top 12 selections, there were six high schoolers and six college guys taken. In Baseball America’s most recent rankings, just one player from last year’s first round sits among the top 25 prospects.
But clearly, there was something good about the kid. It would just be a matter of time to figure out exactly what that was.
“He’s really going to hit,” BlueClaws manager Marty Malloy said. “He’s just turned 19 years old a couple weeks back and is hitting third in the order in a full season for the first time coming out of high school.
“But just his work — whether it be in the weight room or his throwing program, leads and breaks at first base. … He’s going to get stronger and he’s been the same guy every day — 0 for 4 or 4 for 4, it’s the same Mick.”
After he slashed .284/.340/.409 with the Gulf Coast Phillies in 46 games, the organization promoted Moniak to Low A ball and it’s been much of the same. In 81 games so far, he’s cooled down just a bit to .267, but his strikeout rate has been just a hair higher than 20 percent and he’s slugging .386.
And fortunately for the Phils, their needs in the outfield are far from desperate.
Although Moniak was the team’s second-ranked prospect entering the year, they just promoted Nick Williams to the big leagues, have Roman Quinn and Dylan Cozens at Lehigh Valley and already have a pair of guys in their 20s roaming the Citizens Bank Park outfields on a nightly basis with Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr.
On top of that, the team just used its eighth overall selection this year to take Adam Haseley — a guy who also plays center field and is already on the fast track to the majors (more on him here).
Still, Moniak was a No. 1 pick. It’s no question why the expectations are high and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
Now, it’s just a matter of how the Encinitas, California, native is going to handle them.
“Being a No. 1 pick, you want to be that guy,” Moniak said. “I’m just trying to get better every day and not listen to too much outside. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself — that kind of ruins the fun for me.”
His coaches feel the same way.
“He’s probably more mature than most 19-year-olds would be, but it hasn’t been an issue at all,” Malloy said. “He’s handled it better probably than most as far as autographs, people calling, people coming, wanting this, that and the other from him. With open arms, I think he’s been a pro about it.”
In spring training, Moniak discussed the thing that slowed him a bit last season. No, it was not a broken bone or a pulled muscle. Nor was it a mental issue having made the jump right from high school to the pros.
It was growing pains. Remember, the kid has yet to even live for two decades. He’s about as young as they get in the South Atlantic League — the only guy younger on the BlueClaws is fireballer Sixto Sanchez, who won’t turn 19 until the end of this month.
Moniak is still developing and he’s made his health a priority. Despite taking the night off Wednesday, Moniak has played in all but nine games this season.
If he had the choice, he wouldn’t miss a game the rest of the way.
“[My biggest improvement has been] just playing every day,” Moniak said. “Taking care of your body before the game and after the game — stuff like that to make sure you can play 140 games in a minor-league season, and hopefully 162 games soon.
“A real big focus for me has been making sure my body’s been ready to go every day. I feel great right now and this next month and a half, two months are going to be fun. I’m going to do the same thing I’ve been doing up to this point.”
It’s probably unrealistic to think Moniak won’t take another night off.
And in reality, the season isn’t about his personal goals anyways. The Phillies haven’t really hit on a first-rounder right out of high school since Cole Hamels was taken in 2002. Even he, a four-time All-Star and World Series MVP, needed three-plus seasons to make it to Philadelphia.
For Hamels, it started in Lakewood. Now, Moniak just wants to do the same.
“Growing up as a kid, you watch the All-Star Game and you think, ‘That’s where I’m going to be. That’s what I want to work for,’” Moniak said. “But right now, I’m staying in the moment. I’m in A ball. I’m just focused on getting better every day and growing and developing in the system.
“Whenever that day comes to where I maybe get the call to go up to Philly, I want to work for it, so taking it day by day is pretty much all you can do at this point.”