Sam Mellinger

Royals prospect Bobby Witt Jr.’s next challenge: ‘He ain’t tasted his own blood yet’

He walked into his introductory press conference on blue carpet, not water, which is the first sign yet that the hype of Bobby Witt Jr. may be exaggerated in some corners.

He is tall, strong, athletic and somehow still apparently humble. That’s a heck of a combination, and at some point you start to see how a high school star becomes a folk hero and how a folk hero becomes perhaps the best prospect in Royals history and without question a central part of the franchise’s attempt to climb up from the bottom one more time.

Before he even finished his high school career, Witt Jr. was rated the second-best shortstop prospect in more than 30 years by — behind only Alex Rodriguez, and ahead of Chipper Jones, Manny Machado, Derek Jeter and others.

His reaction to the list is basically Royals general manager Dayton Moore’s platonic ideal of a ballplayer.

“Just kind of motivated me, honestly,” Witt Jr. said. “Yeah, you can write that stuff down on paper, but until I perform the way they did, it’s never satisfied with that yet. So I have to go out there and play my game, and have a lot of fun, and be myself out there, and maybe one day I’ll be up there actually on a list with them. Not just on paper.”

Witt Jr. is said to be a legitimate five-tool prospect — athletic enough for big league shortstop, elite speed already, and enough power to win wood bat home run contests against the best of his peer group.

It’s easy to see how the hype takes momentum. Chad Lee, the area scout who worked closest with the Witt family, said he’s never scouted a player who loved the game as much. Lonnie Goldberg, the Royals’ scouting director, compared Witt Jr.’s baseball character to Alex Gordon.

Jim Callis, perhaps the most respected writer on amateur and minor league baseball talent in the country, compared Witt Jr.’s potential impact on Kansas City to Patrick Mahomes.

(Witt Jr. was asked about that, too, and midway through his answer said he “grew up watching” Mahomes. Life comes so fast.)

This is all honest and well-intentioned but it’s also nonsense, and it’s interesting that Witt Jr. seems to be one of the few to realize that.

Being compared to A-Rod and Chipper is kind of cool for now, but it’s also a trap. He could make All-Star teams and not match the expectation of the moment. That’s a dangerous thing, now more than ever. Witt Jr. signed for nearly $7.8 million. It took his father eight years in the major leagues and his first free agent contract to make that much money.

Witt Jr. is basically a blank canvas. Whatever expectations come to mind can be drawn in and left for him to worry about. He is solely responsible for validating the expectations of others who are both uninvolved and without anything at stake.

Think about that. The Royals have.

Witt Jr. is saying and by all accounts doing the right things. He has succeeded against the best competition available. His father played 16 years in the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine how a high school graduate could be better prepared.

But he is woefully ill-prepared in at least one area. He’s never failed.

“He ain’t tasted his own blood yet,” one scout said this week.

That will come. It always does. Even for the best. Comparisons of high-level prospects are never made with guys who didn’t succeed, but it’s telling that even those most often referenced for Witt Jr.’s best qualities have failed.

Gordon hit .232 in his third season, was told to go to the minor leagues and learn a new position, and then hit .215 the next year. Mike Moustakas was hitting .152 in his fourth year when he was demoted.

Rodriguez made it to the big leagues before his 19th birthday but hit .204 there before being sent back down, then .232 the next year. Jones hit .229 his first year of pro ball.

“Just the grind,” Witt Jr. said when asked what his biggest challenge will be. “I’ve always heard (about) going out and playing everyday, the bus trips, everything. I’ve heard stories where it breaks down a player. So just going up there, just knowing you’re playing the game of baseball I’ve grown up loving.”

It’s an honest answer, but also incomplete. The premise of the question was probably unfair — full disclosure: I asked it — because he can’t know the answer yet.

Maybe the biggest test will be the grind. Or maybe the pressure of the money will diminish his joy or edge. Maybe the target that comes with the hype will be a problem. Maybe he’ll get cross with a coach, or an umpire, or a teammate. Maybe he’ll get hurt.

Maybe the pitchers will be too good.

Whatever, the challenge will come. Witt Jr. is as ready for this as anyone in his position could ever be — physically, mentally, emotionally, everything.

But nobody has ever entered pro ball fully prepared for the most difficult apprenticeship in major American sports. His talent and enviable worldview will be challenged like never before. Many can’t-miss prospects have missed because of it.

Witt Jr.’s turn comes now. The most optimistic view is he’ll need at least two years, but probably more. A large part of a struggling franchise’s future depends on the outcome.

Good luck kid.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.