It goes without saying that all of us who call ourselves baseball fans should be and are excited to see Wil Myers make his major league debut for the Rays tonight. Myers represents potentially the latest in the long string of elite prospects who have taken the game by storm over the last few years, among them Longoria, Price, Heyward, Posey, Strasburg, Chapman, Trout, Harper, Cespedes, Harvey, Machado, Miller, Profar, Puig. That list is probably missing a couple, because baseball is flush with transplendent young blood, more now than perhaps any time in the game's past. Myers certainly has the profile to join them.
Myers has made the Baseball America top-100 prospect list for three years running, not because his development stalled, but because his major-league bat was evident almost from the moment he put on a uniform. He had a 966 OPS as a 19-year-old in the Carolina League. He was the youngest player on the circuit to qualify for the batting title that year. He entered the year ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the game by Baseball America, MLB.com, and ESPN's Keith Law. SB Nation's John Sickels and Baseball Prospectus's Jason Parks ranked him seventh. Regardless, Myers profiled as an elite player.
Not all elite players start that way. Of the players listed above, Mike Trout had rough debut season before breaking out last year. Over the last month and a half of 2011, he hit just .220/.281/.390, and looked every bit as lost as you'd expect a 19-year-old with no major league experience to look. Success isn't guaranteed for Wil Myers and the Rays just because of the rookie's great résumé. Still, it was almost certainly the Rays' financial situation more than Myers' need for more seasoning that compelled them to keep him down in the first place. After all, a 989 OPS across Double- and Triple-A doesn't really leave a lot of room for doubt. He simply didn't have much more to learn in the minors.
Given the need for the Rays to play the long game, and keep their phenoms around for as long as possible, it's entirely understandable that they'd keep Myers down long enough to ensure they controlled him for an extra year, and he wouldn't be joining the Super-Two group of arbitration-eligible players. The Rays have to get creative -- and manipulative -- to maintain their roster of any length of time.
As you'd suspect, any team as creative as the Rays succeeds on the margins by bringing in players who are... well, let's just call them incomplete. They do one or two things exceptionally well, and the Rays exploit those qualities while trying to minimize the damage caused by their lack of other skills. Consider Jose Molina, a defensive whiz behind the plate who (research suggests) is far and away the best pitch-framer in the game today, but is also a career .239/.285/.344 hitter. With enough offense spread throughout the rest of the lineup, the Rays are able to essentially punt Molina's spot when it comes up.
Similarly, the Rays have filled the holes in their outfield corners and DH spots with good, though limited players. Matt Joyce is a tremendous hitter against right-handed pitchers (.267/.359/.504 for his career), but is lost against lefties (.202/.279/.333) and terrible in the field (his -8.4 UZR is 12th worst in baseball among outfielders, making him roughly the equivalent of noted statue Josh Willingham of the Twins). And while Kelly Johnson has played more than half the club's games in left field and hit well there (.269/.322/.515), he is exceeding all but the most optimistic projections for his performance. Finally, Luke Scott, despite being left-handed, continues to struggle against righties in the DH spot and has hit just .240/.340/.388 overall.
Nonetheless, the Rays' offense has done exceptionally well this season. They're third in the AL in runs per game (4.83), second in OPS+, and first in True Average (.283) and fourth in wOBA (.329). Still, even if he struggles initially, Myers figures to improve the Rays in several key areas. In particular, his defense will allow the Rays to shift Joyce to the DH spot at times, improving the club's overall run prevention. Alternatively, he can push Joyce to left field, a less challenging position, which will allow Joe Maddon to spot Johnson more carefully and (at least theoretically) prolong his period of value. Myers isn't a great defender yet; most scouting reports point to his need to refine his routes to the ball in the outfield, but he is athletic with a strong arm.In any event, it will be virtually impossible for him to be worse than Joyce has been. He also fixes some of the imbalance in the Rays lineup, as Joyce, Johnson, and Scott all swing from the left side. Myers, on the other hand, absolutely clubs left-handed pitching. Over the last two seasons, he has hit .315/.378/.635 with 15 homers against lefties in 200 plate appearances. Even if he struggles overall, he complements the skills of the players the Rays do have beautifully.
I'm incredibly excited to watch Myers tonight, not just because he could be the next big thing, but because of how he represents an organization that seems to have thought of everything and to have planned for every contingency. He doesn't have to be great to have a huge impact on the race going forward. As of this morning, the Rays are five games back in the AL East, and just 2.5 games out of an AL Wild Card berth, and Myers is going to give them a leg up the rest of the way.