Former top MLB picks Lewis, Moniak stare pressure in face at Fall League

SCOTTSDALE – The last time two No. 1 overall picks competed in the Arizona Fall League was in 2011 when Gerrit Cole (2011) and Bryce Harper (2010) headlined the league. Since then, the two have combined for nine All Star Game nods, an MVP and a Rookie of the Year award.

Eight years later, two more No. 1 overall picks are looking to leave their mark on a league that has produced an impressive array of big-league talent.

Mickey Moniak of the Philadelphia Phillies and Royce Lewis of the Minnesota Twins were selected with the first overall pick in the 2016 and 2017 Major League Baseball drafts, respectively. They are on parallel paths to the majors.

That path takes them through the AFL, a developmental league where top prospects from all 30 MLB teams showcase their talents to scouts, executives, coaches and fans around the valley.

Lewis, who is the number nine overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, and Moniak, the Phillies’ number eight overall prospect, both reached Double-A this season. Both will be popular draws in the Arizona Fall League.

Though both carry the pressure of baseball’s highest draft slot, neither player is letting that status define their career.

“At first, it did (have an effect on my mentality),” Moniak said. “Going into games, I had to go out there trying to get three hits a game and perform and maybe try to hit myself out of a funk instead of just sticking to approach and having good at-bats. I think at first it was all about getting hits, getting hits swinging at pitches out of the zone and it snowballed… into something that wasn’t a productive year. I definitely learned from it

“It’s a whole learning process. I think in those times, you’ve got to just take a step back, take a deep breath and just remember you’re playing baseball. You’re here for a reason and just go out and enjoy yourself.”

Both players have at least two full professional seasons under their belts, and both have experienced struggles. Moniak struggled early and fell out of the top 100 prospects list. Lewis had his worst professional season in 2019, recording an OPS of just .661 across 127 games in High-A and Double-A.

“I guess when you have a bad performance, it’s seen a lot more often and I guess that’s where the pressures kind of can come in if you really let it affect you,” Lewis said. “If you just act like a normal dude at the end of the day, who cares what people think of you? It’s a game. I’m supposed to fail. I’m supposed to probably strike out 10 times nowadays with all this Statcast and stuff or hit a home run one out of 10 [at-bats]. If that doesn’t happen, I guess you’re bad. But like I said, at the end of the day, do I care? No. Not really. I’m just going to work as hard as I can and help my team win.”

“I think at the end of the day, it all works itself out. I think at the end of the day for [Moniak] as well, he’d rather be a big leaguer, an all-star big leaguer, than a No. 1 prospect.”

Several first overall picks have come through the Fall League, but what makes this situation unique is that Lewis, who was drafted out of JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, California, and Moniak, out of La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, California, grew up facing each other on a regular basis before they were drafted. Now in opposite clubhouses at Salt River Fields, the Fall League offers another chance to face each other, albeit with higher stakes and the big leagues looming.

“Both being Southern California guys, going to the same showcases, playing in the same events growing up was huge and it was a lot of fun,” Moniak said. “The day that I saw [Lewis] get drafted first overall was kind of cool for me just to see another Southern California kid come out of a pretty rich, talented baseball area.

“I’m excited to see him play. He’s a stud and I enjoy competing against him. I competed against him a little bit in the Florida State League and that was always fun. I’m looking forward to… playing against him a few times here in the next five weeks.”

Moniak and Lewis hope to have long Major League Baseball careers despite the struggles and the pressures of being baseball’s top pick. While the shadows of their draft selection and those chosen before them will always hang over their heads, both are pushing forward and showcasing their talents in the Valley of the Sun.

“It doesn’t define me. I’m my own person outside of the field, but it’s something I love to do,” Moniak said. “It’s something I have a passion for and I just kind of learn to deal with on-field stuff and not carry it over into everyday life.

“[I’m] just going out there and playing at my hardest level and my highest level each and every day and having fun doing it,” Lewis added. “I think I pick up the team sometimes just by having fun and having my good energy, showing some flash around the game. I just love playing the game.”

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