Wil Myers is ready to put on a Show, if only he can get there
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There is the head of a boar, mounted next to a player's locker. There are the inspirational words from that great baseball sage, Alan Greenspan, plastered on a wall: "Rules cannot take the place of character." There are the countless reclamation projects shuffling around the clubhouse, the outcasts who have washed ashore onto baseball's island of misfits, from the Artist Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona (now Roberto Hernandez) to the 38 year old trying to make his 10th different major league team and reach the postseason for the first time (Jamey Wright) to the relief pitcher with one working eye (Juan Sandoval).
Welcome to Rays camp, where the biggest story so far this spring wasn't the tale of how Luke Scott slayed a 220-pound boar with a spear and brought his prize with him to camp for Joe Maddon's annual "show-and-tell" at Port Charlotte. The Story was the arrival of Wil Myers, Baseball America's 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, the key prospect in the megadeal that sent James Shields to Kansas City, the player who will almost certainly begin the season in the minors but who could turn out to be this year's Mike Trout -- the X-factor in the wide-open AL East race.
The Wil Myers Show during Rays' batting practice is becoming a must-see event in the Grapefruit League. On Friday morning in Dunedin, when Myers launched two jaw-dropping shots into the trees beyond the leftfield fence, fans behind the visitor's dugout broke out into applause. An old scout, sitting behind home plate, squinted into the midday sun as he tried to track a ball that disappeared into the morning haze. He turned and said, "You hear him being compared to Dale Murphy." There was another twhack -- "like all the great ones, the sound is different from everyone else's" says the scout -- and he watched another ball clear the leftfield fence. "But, if you're asking me," he said, "I think he's going to be better than Dale Murphy. Just watch."
The first thing you should know about Wil Myers: He still has a lot to learn. For starters: "His diet, let's just say it's not very good -- that could definitely use some improvement," said Scott Davis, his old coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, N.C. "I keep telling him, 'You're a professional athlete now, you can't eat all the junk you've been eating.' But he loves his Mexican food. And he was telling me just this past winter that he drinks three Cokes a day."
By now, you've probably heard the stories about the kid from Thomasville, N.C. You've probably heard about how as a high school freshman, he hit .450 and was an all-state third baseman, even though he'd never played third base before that season. You may have heard how he went 10-0 as a pitcher his junior year, and how he started his school's state championship game, then, after being relieved by his manager, reentered the game to finish it off. You've probably heard about the day a dozen scouts came to see him in a game at Greensboro during his senior year; he hit three home runs, including one that cleared a 50-foot tree behind centerfield. "The bigger the stage, the better he plays," said Davis. "Nothing fazes this kid. He's one of a kind."
Myers isn't as quirky as, say, the Rays' resident boar slayer, but he "definitely does his own thing -- and I mean that in a good way," said Ben Theriot, a former Royals prospect who roomed with Myers while both were in the Kansas City system. "I remember first seeing him as an 18 year old, hitting off a tee, doing his thing, while everyone else is doing flips." Theriot added, "The thing that's different about Wil is that when he's hitting off a tee, he's actually working on hitting home runs. You'll never hear anyone say they do that. You watch him, he's not just trying to hit a home run just to hit a home run. He's trying to put backspin on the ball to carry the ball out. A lot of hitters get caught up in just hitting the ball the other way, hitting the ball to the gaps. Wil tries to put true backspin on the ball -- that's where his power comes from."
Myers brings the same approach to BP: "I actually try to hit home runs," he said. "The way I see it: if you work on it, it's going to translate in games." Myers began to let loose after his disappointing 2011 season at Double-A, when he hit .254 with eight home runs. "I told myself, look, they're not paying me to be a slap hitter," he said, "which is what I'd become. They're paying me to hit the ball out of the park." Last season, at Double and Triple-A, Myers hit 37 home runs -- no 21 year old had hit that many in the high minors in nearly 50 years.
Myers was watching an episode of Breaking Bad with his girlfriend when he got the call that he'd been dealt from the team that drafted him in 2009. He was as stunned as everyone else. "Totally shocked," he said.
"That trade," Davis said, "It was hard for me to understand. A talent like that ... boy, I'm just not sure I could do that." He added, "But Wil is in a good place now in Tampa, playing for a guy like Joe Maddon. I'm not sure that Wil would do as well with a drill sergeant type of manager. He's more of a free spirit, and that's what they embrace there in Tampa. He's in the perfect place now."
Everyone, of course, wants to know how soon Myers will be up in the Show. The Rays are in no rush; they know they're good enough to win the division with or without their young 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder. "Tampa, they'd probably be my pick right now," said an AL GM. "You look at the pitching staff and even without Shields, it's really, really good. Matt Moore is scary good. Having a healthy [Evan] Longoria is the key for them. But the X-factor is Myers. They can definitely win without him. But what if he comes up in May or June and starts hitting like Trout or Harper? That's a potential game-changer in the division."
Myers believed he was ready for the majors last year, and he believes he's ready now. But he also respects The Process and the smartest organization in baseball. Two days into spring training, he sat down with Rays executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and the rest of the coaching staff, and they spelled out their plans for him. Myers knows that he's only played 93 games in the minors as an outfielder, and he knows this game is a business, and that the Rays -- mindful of the major league service clock -- are unlikely to start him in the big leagues. "I want to be up there, of course, but I also trust these guys completely," he said. "You're talking about a model organization here. A lot of teams go off what the Rays do."
The most scrutinized prospect of this spring training was standing outside his team's clubhouse as he spoke on Friday, finishing off another Big-Gulp-sized Coke from a morning Chick-fil-A run, just a few minutes before heading out for stretch. Myers talked about how he always envisioned playing his whole career in Kansas City, right alongside Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and all the other young, exciting talent in the Royals system -- but already, in a clubhouse of outcasts and misfits, he feels at home. "This is no knock on Kansas City, I loved my time there," he said, "but it's just so different here. The vibe in the clubhouse, everyone's relaxed, doing their own thing. You can be yourself."
He took another swig and said, "And I like that, you know?"