PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Sometimes Travis d'Arnaud plays guitar, a remnant of teenage afternoons as a string virtuoso. "I was first chair," the catcher says proudly of his middle school career, reflecting on a hobby he still indulges every so often.
Music, for d'Arnaud, is like baseball in a way. Even these days, when he plays simply to pass the hours, he wants to be great.
"But for, like, a less amount of time," he laughed, his speech exposing a certain measure of California cool. "For five minutes I'll really try, and then my mind will start wandering and I'll just do something else."
It was that skittish attention span that led d'Arnaud to volunteer for catching when he was 14 years old, quickly falling in love with the position because it allowed him to engage in every play. Behind the plate he developed into a high school star, a top 40 Draft pick, trade bait for a Cy Young Award winner, a top-10 prospect, trade bait for another Cy Young Award winner, and now, at age 24, the next great hope for a Mets franchise panning the infield dirt for any sort of optimism.
d'Arnaud still wants to be great.
"This has been his goal forever," d'Arnaud's high school coach, Spud O'Neil, said. "He always knew that he wanted to be a professional baseball player."
Sometimes d'Arnaud plays videogames, the only activity that keeps him still. He sits in his Port St. Lucie apartment with his favorite game, challenging random opponents online.
Those opponents have no idea they are playing against, and often losing to, the No. 6 prospect in baseball.
"He's very competitive," said teammate Robert Carson, whose blossoming friendship included a recent trip to see d'Arnaud's beloved NBA Lakers lose to the Heat in Miami. "He beat me once, but I'm up on him right now. But he's actually real good."
d'Arnaud may not say much in general, but he grows expressive, even impish, when the situation allows it.
Here's an example: when a former teammate began yelling "Oppo Taco" every time d'Arnaud hit an opposite-field home run, he embraced the chant. He and his teammates emblazoned T-shirts with the phrase, and d'Arnaud began "prancing" -- his word -- around the dugout come Oppo Taco time.
He remembers a different game around the same time period, squatting behind the plate in 2011 for Double-A New Hampshire, when a New Britain hitter smashed what appeared to be a late game-tying single. Two years earlier, the Phillies had traded d'Arnaud, their former supplemental-round Draft pick, to the Jays as part of a package for all-everything pitcher Roy Halladay.
d'Arnaud's name was an afterthought in that four-team deal, which included pitchers Cliff Lee and Kyle Drabek -- the latter a better-regarded prospect than d'Arnaud at the time. But he was on every scout's radar by the time he reached New Britain, where right fielder Moises Sierra fielded the ball and fired to d'Arnaud. In one motion, he received it and fell on the runner just before he crossed home plate.
"I was fired up," d'Arnaud said, revealing a glimpse of that brimstone as he recounted the story. "It was good. The crowd was really loud, because I was probably saying some stuff I shouldn't have been saying."
Sometimes d'Arnaud studies. That's not uncommon for catchers, whose position demands more time in the video room than any other.
But it is somewhat rare for a 24-year-old catcher, who could easily skate by on his offense alone, to immerse himself so fully in the file cabinets of Major League scouts. When bench coach Bob Geren showed d'Arnaud the Mets' video room for the first time this spring, he was, in Geren's words, "kind of blown away."
"He soaked that in and he was asking questions as we were going," Geren said. "I said, 'This is good. This is a good sign.'"
Geren, who doubles as the team's catching instructor, showed d'Arnaud video of Johan Santana pitching to a particular veteran big league hitter. When Geren displayed the hitter's tendencies on inside fastballs, d'Arnaud wanted to know about low-and-inside heaters. When Geren called up tendencies on low-and-inside fastballs, d'Arnaud asked about offspeed pitches.
At Lakewood High in Southern California, O'Neil tells his players that "defense wins championships," a quote that d'Arnaud likes to recite. It's not just politics. O'Neil recalls d'Arnaud beating him to the mound during routine in-game visits.
"He wasn't always a catcher, and when I'd go out to the mound, he'd be out there, right in on it and learning," O'Neil said. "We didn't have to do much with him as far as the teaching process."
Most often d'Arnaud plays baseball, which is why the Mets traded away one of the most likeable, relatable, successful pitchers in franchise history to acquire him. His reputation proceeded him to Flushing. In online polls, thousands of local fans lauded the deal, even though it stripped the Mets of their first Cy Young Award winner in more than a quarter-century.
d'Arnaud hit 16 home runs last year at Triple-A Las Vegas with a .380 on-base percentage in 67 games, numbers that should have vaulted him to the big leagues by the All-Star break. As it was, d'Arnaud tore a ligament in his left knee in June, prematurely ending his season.
He worked and rehabbed and was fine by the holidays, hiking around Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend, Britney, in November. Less than a month later, the Jays made him the centerpiece of a deal to bring R.A. Dickey to Toronto, ending one era in New York while establishing another.
The Mets also acquired a top-flight pitching prospect in the seven-player deal, a veteran catcher and one other prospect. But it was d'Arnaud whom they coveted, d'Arnaud who represented the key to everything.
The Mets wanted this guitar-playing, video-game-beating, defense-loving catcher in blue and orange, knowing he was the type of "difference-maker" that general manager Sandy Alderson sought. The last time the Mets employed a superstar behind the plate, Mike Piazza led them to the World Series. Most teams that travel deep into the postseason these days boast a conspicuous catcher of their own.
"Recognize, we could have kept R.A. here," Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon said Wednesday. "We could have signed him or we could have kept him here -- he was under contract -- or we could have gotten exactly what we wanted.
Like d'Arnaud, Wilpon grew animated as he spoke.
"We got a fit that is exactly what we wanted."