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Watching Wil Myers, Who Is Finally Becoming The Player He Was Supposed To Be

Two teams ago, Wil Myers was one of baseball's true can't-miss prospects. The former Rookie of the Year has missed a lot since then, but now he's easing into stardom.

by Robert O'Connell
Jul 5 2016, 4:26pm

Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sport

The closest I've come to watching Wil Myers play baseball, live and in person, was during his rookie year with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. The Rays visited the Athletics in Oakland one evening in August. They trailed by a run in the ninth, and Myers, who'd been given the evening off due to some recent struggles, hunted around for his bat and appeared for a moment in the on-deck circle. The eventual Rookie of the Year never did pinch-hit that night. The score held, and the Rays lost 4-3.

It fits. In his four years as a Major Leaguer and his six or so as someone known to baseball fans, Myers has been a suggestion as much as he's been an actual player. When Myers was traded from the Kansas City Royals, where he'd been the crown jewel of the game's most celebrated farm system, to the Rays in exchange for James Shields in 2012, he became a touchstone for anyone wanting to malign organizational shortsightedness in general, and Kansas City's in particular. His breakout 2013 helped make the detractors' case; his injury-shortened 2014, which coincided with the Royals reaching the World Series, did the opposite. Pitchers found holes in his swing, his numbers drooped, and in 2015 the Rays shipped him to San Diego, where he broke his wrist and seemed ready to settle in as a figure of cursed and overburdened promise. The Padres have staked out an identity as a purgatorial organization; Myers seemed sadly at home.

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Now, suddenly—and quietly, because he is still employed by the Padres, and because the Padres are still the Padres—Myers is playing the best baseball of his career. He has switched from the outfield to first base, his approach has taken on a new directness, and his future again seems to be trending upward. All of which is to say that Myers is playing well enough that he may soon leave San Diego for a contending team in need of right-handed pop. On the one hand, then, Myers still performs his usual role of movable asset/walking potential. On the other, there is a kind of temporary peace in watching him do so well for his current team, in his current situation. The sport may be contriving again to make Myers mean something more than he should, but right at this moment, he gets to be a player playing up to his considerable potential for the first time in a while.

Today, Myers is still partly the 22-year-old kid who knocked a high-and-outside fastball over the right field wall at Yankee Stadium for his first career homer. He has mostly the same straight-up stance and the same wide, casual swing that seems almost a trick of confidence, as if it will fall apart the second he realizes all the ways it could. He still steps to the plate with the air of someone who could never be worried, really—maybe only annoyed, and rarely that. He still doesn't wear batting gloves.

At the same time, though, you can spot on him some of the concessions that every professional baseball player has to make. That stance isn't quite so upright as it used to be, and Myers' bat-wag now syncs with a reasonable knee-bend/heel-tap combination he picked up somewhere along the line. When he takes a cut at a pitch he likes—which he does less often now, as he's brought his walk percentage up slightly from a hack-happy start—it no longer looks like the motion someone might use to cast fishing line. He clears his hips to get to an inside pitch or dips his shoulders to reach away, all signs of the study that has revised what used to be a prodigy's carefree technique. At some point that game stops being easy even for the most transcendent talents. At some point in his travels, Myers appears to have figured that out.

A leisurely walk around a very quiet park. Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On a Tuesday night in late June, the Padres were getting clobbered by the Baltimore Orioles, the score already 11-1 in the seventh. It's a spot they're used to on large and small scales; they're last in the NL West, 16 games back. In a wrinkle of irony, though, the very strategy that led to the Padres' current troubles makes them less of a bummer than other teams in similar spots. San Diego made itself an outpost for ex-anythings, from former MVP candidate Matt Kemp to former phenom Melvin Upton, Jr., and so even seeing them on the wrong side of a blowout can have a slanted appeal. It's as if you're watching both a single game and also the bigger temporal process of baseball through consecutive slides of skills leaving and fame fading. The Padres are a series of interlocking case studies.

In that seventh inning, Myers got a high fastball, which is still his favorite kind of pitch. He is just about the only Padre of any renown who might be better next year than he is right now, the only one in pursuit of something other than good-feeling flashbacks, but ten runs down with a high fastball coming in, he seemed happy to play the old part. He put that easy, wristy swing on it and sent it out high to right. It cleared the wall, cut the Padres' deficit to seven, and made Myers' year a little bit better.

If Myers gets moved before the trade deadline, there won't be much opportunity for such soft successes. He'll be tasked with punching up a contender, his every at-bat weighted with cost and expectation. His own happy trajectory—from promise towards stability, via a couple years of aggravation and injury—will be subsumed by his new squad's broader story, whether it's trying to make a late-summer push or ready a lineup for the postseason. It figures to be a different environment to play in; it'll certainly be a different one to watch. Whatever the case, Myers is a different player than he was, and he'll look different again in this new context, and the next new uniform.

For all the Padres' myriad faults, they have been ideally suited for Myers at this moment in his baseball life. Their front-office moves range from silly to outright bad, their talent is almost all over-the-hill, and they play their first meaningless game every year around sometime in late May, but there seems to be something in that environment of totally casual baseball that has let Myers put some tempo to what has otherwise been an arrhythmic career. In San Diego, he became something that was hard to imagine even a few months ago: someone good enough to get out of town.

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there is no such thing as a hitting prospect