DURHAM — The crack of the bat is one of baseballs most symbolic noises. Entering his 27th professional season, and 17th as a manager, Charlie Montoyo said the noise coming from the Rays newest top prospect Wil Myers is rare.
Watch (batting practice) and youll see how the ball sounds different off his bat, Montoyo said. ... (Josh) Hamilton and (Carl) Crawford and all the guys like that, the ball sounds like that off the bat.
Fans will get the chance to hear that sound for themselves Monday night in Durhams home opener against Gwinnett Braves. Myers is the No. 4 prospect in the minor leagues, according to Baseball America, and the centerpiece of a talented Durham Bulls roster.
He came to the Rays along with pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery in a trade for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis along with other prospects to the Kansas City Royals.
Last season, Myers hit 37 home runs and 109 RBI at Double A and Triple A, earning the Baseball America, USA Today and Topps Minor League Player of the Year in the same season, joining Andruw Jones (1996) and Josh Beckett (2001) as the only players to win all three.
While times are certainly good now for the 22-year-old outfielder from High Point, Myers path to this point wasnt as simple as trotting around the bases.
Myers was a two-sport standout in middle school, but he gave up football to pursue baseball before his freshman year. In turn, he decided to attend Wesleyan Christian Academy, which did not have a football team, but had a dominant baseball program.
Ive been at Wesleyan Academy for 11 years, and Ive never had a player as talented as Wil, Scott Davis said. He was All-State as a freshman at third base a position he had never played before. It was kind of on from there.
After that breakout season, Myers struggled his sophomore and junior seasons relative to his standards. Davis said Myers still batted above .300 and earned All-State honors.
His junior season, Myers also went 10-0 with a fastball that touched 90 mph to lead Wesleyan to the 2008 state title.
He certainly wasnt happy (with his offensive numbers), but he made the guys around him better, Davis said. We were much better with him in the lineup. The guys that were in front of him and behind him in the lineup had career years that year. That was just the kind of player he was.
Following his sophomore campaign, Myers began talking with South Carolina coach Ray Tanner and committed to the Gamecocks soon after.
Scouts certainly knew his name, but his value increased dramatically during a senior season in which he hit .532 with 14 home runs and 41 RBIs.
Ability wise, he was ready to turn pro, but the question was whether anyone could sign him. And draft day produced plenty of drama.
Baseball America touted Myers as the No. 2 pure hitter among high school players in the draft, but he sought a $2 million signing bonus. He worked out for Kansas City, putting on a powerful batting practice display and was in the mix for the Royals first-round pick.
They skipped him. And so did every other team.
Ninety players were selected before the Royals picked Myers in the third round. They signed him for his asking price five times more than most third-rounders get.
Myers had a successful, albeit short, pro debut that summer, hitting .369 with five home runs in 22 games at two rookie-level stops. More success followed in 2010, hitting .315 with 14 homers and 83 RBIs as a 19-year-old catcher with two Class A teams.
To reduce the chance of injury and keep his bat in the lineup, The Royals moved Myers to the outfield. It was a plan that did not work out instantly.
He started Double A as a 20-year-old, several years younger than the league norm, but hit just .254. He was also limited to 99 games after missing nearly a month due to a laceration and an infection on his knee after running from his car in the rain.
I had a tough year in 2011, Myers said. I went back to the fall league with a different approach at the plate and went into offseason with a lot of confidence and really worked hard. That translated into the year.
Healthy and ripping the baseball again, Myers tore up the Arizona Fall League, batting .360 with four homers and 18 RBI. League coaches named him one of the leagues 10 best prospects.
Surely, Kansas City couldnt be far away.
Better than advertised
Myers started last season back in Double A and showed early he was beyond that level. He moved to Triple A and continued his torrid start for three more months.
He had Royals fans looking forward to Opening Day 2013 and the possibility of seeing his name in the lineup. But the trade in December changed that.
Myers will settle for starting the season less than 80 miles from his birthplace and home in Thomasville.
I was kind of shocked at what happened, Myers said. I didnt really think about the fact that Durham was a part of the Tampa Bay (organization) until probably about a week after. Obviously Im very excited to be in Durham and be closer to home.
Nobody expects a long homecoming. The Rays, however, could benefit by having Myers in Durham until early July because; That pushes back when he can eventually become arbitration eligible or even a free agent. Long term, the Rays potentially could save millions.
Myers told the Tampa Bay Times he hasnt circled any dates on his calendar.
Thats not me, he told the paper. I just go out and play my game and try to get better every day. Whenever the front office thinks its time, then thats when it happens.
Baseball America Editor John Manuel said he doesnt think the Rays will wait that long.
I see him being in the big leagues by May, he said. To me, I think he winds up contending for Rookie of the Year. I think hes that good. In our minds, talent plays. And for the (Rays), he might be one of the three or four most talented players in their lineup.
Rays manager Joe Maddon already sounds sold.
"Better than advertised, how about that?" Maddon told the Times. "Offensively you can see the prodigious ability, its absolutely there. ...
"Hes more of a complete player than I thought because everyone has talked about hitting, hitting, hitting. So I was expecting like a big guy who hit a lot that really didnt move that well. Even though he played the outfield, he had been a catcher. So all these things sent confusing signals. To see him on the field, hes very athletic and should be a solid five-tool player. He should be able to play all areas of the game above average, and some well-above average."
Myers current teammate and fellow North Carolina native Chris Archer agrees.
Wil is a special breed, Archer said. He can swing the bat. Whether hes facing high schoolers or hes facing big leaguers, hes pretty much going to have the same result.
The type of talent Myers brings to Durham is much more than just what he can do at the plate, but Bulls fans that get the chance to hear the sound coming from his bat Monday night might understand why many in baseball thinks hes the next big thing.
Smith: 919-829-4841; @RCorySmith