When Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took over for Terry Ryan four years ago, it created a new era for Minnesota Twins baseball. Under Ryan, the Twins used an old-school approach that fueled their run of dominance in the 2000s but had produced several first-round busts in the 2010s.
Falvey and Levine wanted to turn the Twins into an analytics-driven franchise, and their first opportunity to put their stamp on the team was with the first overall selection in the 2017 MLB Entry Draft.
It’s been four years since Lewis was drafted, and it’s still uncertain where he fits in with the Twins. When Lewis was drafted, Minnesota had a dearth of options at shortstop before Jorge Polanco exploded onto the scene in 2019. While Polanco looks like a better option at second base long term, the Twins could continue the AFL experiment and have Lewis play in the outfield upon his return.
The Twins outfield appears set with Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, and Trevor Larnach but things could change depending on if they re-sign Buxton and if they see Alex Kirilloff as an outfielder or first baseman. Because Buxton has been unable to stay on the field, the front office and ownership may be hesitant to commit to him long-term, which could mean Buxton will be playing elsewhere after the 2022 season.
This would put the Twins in a bind because they don’t have many center field options in their system. In fact, the Twins may have tried Lewis in the outfield this season instead of trotting out Rob Refsnyder, Gilberto Celestino, and Nick Gordon after Buxton’s series of injuries.
The Twins have had plenty of success on the field since Falvey and Levine took over, but Lewis has yet to be a part of it. With a long history of injuries and adjustments, Lewis’ future seems uncertain.
Coming into the draft, the Twins had the opportunity to select high school phenom Hunter Greene, who was crowned a superstar before he ever stood on a professional mound. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and had the ability to become Minnesota’s next great pitcher. Greene’s upside was undeniable, but the Twins decided to take shortstop Royce Lewis, who figured to be the centerpiece of the future.
Four years into his professional career, Lewis has had mixed results. Things got off to a great start when Lewis hit .279/.381/.407 with four homers in 54 games during the 2017 season. He improved on that the following year, hitting .292/.352/.451 with 14 homers and 28 stolen bases between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers.
That 2018 brought more optimism. He was playing beside Alex Kirilloff. With Lewis and Kirilloff leading the way, Falvey and Levine had their version of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau who could be cornerstone players heading into the 2020s.
But Lewis injured his oblique the following spring in what became a frustrating season. Lewis hit .236/.290/.371 between Fort Myers and Double-A Pensacola and while he made his second straight MLB Futures Game, Twins coaches decided he needed to reconstruct his swing.
The adjustments clicked at the end of the season when Lewis played in the Arizona Fall League. In 22 games with Salt River, Lewis raked to the tune of a .353/.411/.565 line with three homers and five steals on his way to winning the AFL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
While his play at the plate grabbed headlines, so did his performance in the field. That is his performance in the outfield.
The Twins tried Lewis out in center field during the AFL season, and he passed with flying colors. The outfield has always been an option since he was drafted, and Lewis was looking like he could join the Twins last season if he could figure it out at the plate.
Then the pandemic hit and Lewis, like many other prospects, was relegated to training at CHS Field in St. Paul for the whole year. Although Lewis appeared ready to start this season with the Saints, he tore his ACL in February. When Lewis returns to the lineup, it will be over two years since he played his last professional baseball game.
But it’s been nearly four years after Lewis was drafted, and the Twins are going to need an answer soon.
Lewis will only be 22 years old when the 2022 season begins, but Major League Baseball has changed. Top prospects don’t need much time to make an instant impact. With the questions surrounding his game and his fit with the team, Lewis is more intriguing than he ever has been.