David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.
The final thing Wil Myers learned as the Royals' top prospect was the definition of the word untouchable.
It has no meaning.
One minute, you're the Minor League Player of the Year, the cornerstone of a rebuilding franchise in Kansas City. The next, you're a Tampa Bay Ray.
"I was pretty shocked," Myers, a corner outfielder, said after Thursday's workout. "The offseason before this one, there were some trade rumors out there, but the Royals told me that none of it was true, so I thought the same thing this time."
The difference? "They told me it was a possibility," he said.
The Royals, sensing an opportunity in the soft American League Central, were desperate this winter for starting pitching and they targeted Myers as the bat that could bring some arms back in return.
The Mets, surprised to hear that Myers was even available, had a Cy Young winner to offer in R.A. Dickey. But talks never got serious, as Kansas City also wanted either Matt Harvey or Zack Wheeler, according to a person with knowledge of those discussions.
Instead, the Royals opted for the package of James Shields and Wade Davis. Unlike the Mets, who were on a specific mission to find either a franchise catcher or young outfield power, Rays GM Andrew Friedman went trolling for takers on Shields, who is making $9 million this season, has a $12-million team option for 2014 and is closing on a significantly bigger payday. The Royals bit hard on Shields, and Friedman naturally requested Myers.
"It's one of those potentially classic win-win type deals," Friedman said. "But it was much more about focusing on the process of, 'If we're going to trade James Shields, what makes the most sense?' And when Kansas City showed some aggressiveness in trying to get a deal done, obviously for us it was important that Wil be included in the deal."
A week later, the Mets did well themselves by getting top-rated catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud and the hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard in a Dickey swap with the Blue Jays. But with the team's glaring outfield deficiencies, and Myers availability this winter, it's likely that d'Arnaud's progress will be scrutinized in how it compares with that of the Rays' prized prospect.
For Myers, he'll be held up to the lofty standards set by the game's two brightest young outfield stars, the Angels' Mike Trout and the Nationals' Bryce Harper. All Trout did was make a serious run at the AL MVP -- finishing second to Miguel Cabrera -- before he settled for Rookie of the Year honors. Harper earned the other ROY, so now the bar has been set impossibly high for someone like Myers, who is supposed to be the next in line.
He appears to have the credentials. Myers, at age 22, is an intimidating figure at 6-3, 205 pounds with some imposing stats to match after a slash line of .314/.387/.600 and 37 homers last season, which he split between Double-A (35 games) and Triple-A (99). Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton had only seen Myers on video before he showed up in camp this month, but he could spot a few things right away that set him apart.
"Initially, you notice the bat speed," Shelton said. "You don't see bat speed like that. And the ball just sounds different. The first day we had him out here, he hit a couple that you thought were fly balls to left-centerfield and they end up getting over the fence by 15 of 20 feet. You don't see that with a ton of guys. He's a big guy with long arms and he controls himself extremely well."
Myers' rare power gets attention, but Rays manager Joe Maddon marveled at his ability to hit balls to the opposite-field -- or oppo, for short -- another special quality for a player his age. In Maddon's mind, that is an indication Myers may soon be ready to make the jump.
It even prompted Maddon to invent an adjective to describe him.
"He looks hitter-ish," Maddon said. "He's not just trying to go up there and hit homers. He's like middle oppo -- that's what he's thinking about right away. That's pretty sophisticated for a guy that young. If you're nailing the oppo gap young, that's very attractive."
The trick is determining when Myers will be ready. Is the next five weeks sufficient to make that call? Last year, Harper, only 19, didn't make the Nats' Opening Day roster, but was recalled on April 27 to replace the injured Ryan Zimmerman. Trout also debuted at 19 -- for two stints in 2011 -- but finally stuck last season after the Angels waited until April 28 to call him up.
Those cases worked out pretty well. The Rays should be so lucky in evaluating Myers.
"You make your best guess at that particular moment," Maddon said. "For whatever reason, they made their best guess, and the guy was almost MVP of the league. Had he been there earlier, who knows?
"Players like that who can be really special, you really don't want to mess up on the timing of this whole thing. I'd rather be just a little bit too late than a little bit too early with people like that, personally."
31 - Varsity teams at Sacred Heart University, where Bobby Valentine was hired this week to be the athletic director. Not sure how much Valentine feels like managing or coaching again, but he’s certainly expanded his options.
21 - Seasons in majors for Pudge Rodriguez, who joined the Rangers as a special assistant to the GM. Too bad. At age 41, he fits the Yankees’ age requirement, and has got to be better than either Francisco Cervelli or Chris Stewart.
8 - Pitches thrown by Johnny Cueto in last year’s NLDS before straining his right oblique. The Reds cited the injury to block Cueto from pitching in the World Baseball Classic. Four months ago? That’s taking extra rest to the extreme.
5 - Former college quarterbacks, including Doug Flutie, who competed in the MLB Network reality show, “The Next Knuckler.” LSU’s John David Booty won an invite to D-backs camp. Still in development: “Real Housewives of Flushing.”
1 - Breast pump purchased by an embarrassed David Price, who made the mistake of asking Evan Longoria what he really, really needed from his baby registry. Memo to Price: next time just go with the Rays’ logo onesies.