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Mickey Moniak powers his way into the Phillies’ crowded center-field competition | Bob Brookover

Joe Girardi said he considers the former first-round pick part of the competition. If you’re scoring at home, that makes it five players in the mix.

Phillies' Mickey Moniak watches his solo home against the Yankees during the 7th inning at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater, Fla. The Phillies shut out the Yankees, 15-0.
Phillies' Mickey Moniak watches his solo home against the Yankees during the 7th inning at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater, Fla. The Phillies shut out the Yankees, 15-0.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The Phillies’ center-field competition is prominent among the story lines that will continuously be told through spring training and probably well into the season. Whoever starts in center field on opening day at Citizens Bank Park should keep renting for a while and never forget that baseball is a prove-it-on-a-daily-basis business.

One of the underreported stories in the 2021 camp, which is more difficult than usual to report upon because of COVID-19 restrictions, is the one about the 2016 No. 1 overall pick who is not among the foursome competing for the center-field job. At least Mickey Moniak wasn’t considered to be part of that competition before he came off the bench and slammed a couple of impressive home runs Thursday afternoon during the Phillies’ 15-0 exhibition rout of the New York Yankees in Clearwater, Fla.

Afterward, manager Joe Girardi declared that the competition is among a quintet and not a quartet of players.

“I think he is in it,” Girardi said. “He’s a talented young kid and his at-bats have been great since day one of live BPs. I think he got some confidence last year and he probably got a better idea of what it takes on a daily basis to be up here and the type of talent you’re going to see on a daily basis. But I’ve said all along he’s interesting, really interesting. He’s athletic. I think he’s a baseball player, one of those guys that is going to get dirty all the time and fight and scratch and claw, so I think he’s interesting in this mix.”

By now, the Phillies surely hoped that Moniak would at least be ready to push for a starting job in this his sixth professional season, but based on his minor-league track record — he has hit .256 with a .302 on-base percentage and a .692 OPS in four seasons — and a 2020 big-league cup of coffee, it seemed doubtful he’d be in competition for a big-league job in this spring training.

Moniak, still only 22 years old, was very much on Girardi’s radar even before his big day Thursday. He’s still a long-shot candidate to make the opening-day roster, but it’s clear he is no longer the skinny kid the Phillies selected in 2016. Girardi has seen a major body transformation even from last year.

“It’s different,” he said. “He’s bigger, he’s stronger. I would say it’s probably the best condition he has been in. It’s a young man that is maturing. All of sudden they start getting bigger and stronger and the ball starts jumping off their bat and we saw it happen a couple of times today with Mickey. Again, I’m going to say it, he’s interesting.”

Moniak slammed a 1-2 inside fastball for a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth inning off 2020 Phillies reliever Reggie McClain in the sixth inning and then connected for a long home run to right-field off lefty Nestor Cortes in the seventh. Managers always like when left-handed hitters get good swings against left-handed pitching.

» READ MORE: Phillies plan expanded role for Andrew Knapp, even if J.T. Realmuto is healthy

Girardi believes Moniak has matured mentally as well as physically.

“I think he’s more comfortable in his surroundings,” the manager said. “I thought last spring the emotions got the best of him a little bit. I don’t see that this year. I think he feels like he belongs, which I think is something we strive to make players feel all the time.”

If Moniak was uncomfortable at the plate last spring, it did not show up statistically. He hit .353 (6-for-14) with two doubles and a triple in his second big-league camp before baseball was shut down for nearly four months by the coronavirus pandemic.

After being assigned to the alternate-site camp when the regular season opened in late July, Moniak made his major-league debut as a pinch-runner Sept. 16 and the following night he made his first start, going hitless in four at-bats against the New York Mets. He ended up playing in eight games and he hit .214 (3-for-14), but his four walks boosted his on-base percentage to .389. Again, he left a favorable impression upon his manager.

“I was pleased with the at-bats that he had last year,” Girardi said. “I know he didn’t have a lot of hits, but I thought he played some pretty good left field for us. I was pleased with what he did, so keep playing. You never know when your time is going to come consistently.”

It’s understandable for fans and teams to expect a lot from the first overall pick in the draft and, in turn, that ramps up the pressure on a player.

The dream scenario is that you take a player like Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones or Ken Griffey Jr. first overall and they start making an impact in their teens. The reality is usually much different for most position players taken early in the draft out of high school.

“I think they expect you to be perennial All-Stars and perennial MVP candidates,” Girardi said. “It’s not easy. It really isn’t because there are a lot of other people that are really, really good and competing against you. And sometimes it takes time to find out who you are and what makes you successful. It’s just simple things that we take for granted like where you’re supposed to be physically and what you’re supposed to weigh and what your routine is supposed to be every day.”

» READ MORE: Matt Moore, Vince Velasquez look sharp, center-field battle heats up in Phillies’ power-packed 15-0 rout of Yankees

From 2000 through Moniak’s draft year of 2016, a total of 40 high school position players were taken among the top 10 picks. Eleven of them — Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Justin Upton, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, and Carlos Correa — became stars.

Three others — Rocco Baldelli, Melvin Upton Jr. and Cameron Maybin — became really good players and another — Delmon Young — had a disappointing career after a promising start. Eight players — Luis Montanez, Scott Moore, Ian Stewart, Chris Nelson, Josh Vitters, Tim Beckham, Kyle Skipworth, and Bubba Starling — made it to the big leagues, but had little or no impact.

A couple of local products — Chris Lubanski from the former Kennedy-Kenrick Catholic High School in Norristown and Billy Rowell from Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken — were among four players who did not make it to the big leagues at all and it appears as if Cornelius Randolph, the 10th overall pick by the Phillies in 2015, is going to end up on that list.

There’s also a long list of players who are too young to be labeled. That’s the group that Moniak belongs in right now and the fact that he has caught the eye of his manager is definitely a step in the right direction.