In June 2017, the Minnesota Twins found themselves drafting first overall for the first time since taking Joe Mauer in the 2001 draft. They had many options, highlighted by two-way star Hunter Greene. Instead, Minnesota selected 18-year-old Royce Lewis, a high schooler from Southern California.
Now almost five years later, his career could be at a crossroads through no fault of his own. Baseball’s current lockout is not only damaging the game, its players, and its teams. The stoppage could be damaging to the career path of Lewis if the regular season is pushed back due to breakdowns at the negotiating table.
Lewis was a bit of a surprise pick, but he was undoubtedly a premier baseball talent. The first pick of the Derek Falvey/Thad Levine era, Lewis boasted high ceilings in all five tools with a steady bat and cannon arm to complement his elite baserunning talent. He looked like he could be the shortstop of the future for a team that just graduated their top prospects: Byron Buxton, José Berríos, and Miguel Sanó.
Whatever doubts or concerns Twins fans had about selecting the young prospect went away almost as soon as Lewis hit the field. He came on strong in his first full professional season by slashing .292/.352/.451 with 14 home runs and 28 stolen bases between High-A and Low-A. The impressive season launched Lewis as Minnesota’s No. 1 prospect and No. 20 in all of baseball, according to MLB.com, at the end of the 2018 season. Lewis continued to climb up through the prospect rankings as he advanced in the minors.
By the end of the 2019 season, he was the league’s fifth-best prospect, just behind players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis, and Eloy Jimenez. That came after slashing .236/.290/.371 with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases. Although Lewis may have taken a slight step back in terms of his OPS and strikeouts (123 in 517 at-bats), there was still reason to keep the hype going for the team’s best prospect. Lewis put his range of talents on display while at the Arizona Fall League, earning the honor of AFL MVP. He led the league with 30 hits, slashed .353/.411/.565 with three homers and 20 RBIs over 22 games.
After putting up those kinds of numbers, the Twins front office had to believe that their rising star was going to crack the big leagues at some point soon, maybe even by the 2020 season. A chance was there whether his path would be at shortstop, center field, or another spot in the Twins lineup.
Then, after a promising start to his pro career, things went sideways. What made the situation worse for Lewis was that he could not predict or prevent what came next.
The COVID-19 pandemic completely wiped out the minor league season for all players. Lewis was involved in some team baseball activities but only as a member of the taxi squad in St. Paul. Twins coaches could still get plenty of crucial one-on-one time to work with him. But there were no live at-bats or real-game situations, only simulated games, and batting practice sessions. The 60-game 2020 season and no minor league games likely factored into Minnesota’s to hold off on giving their No. 1 prospect a call up before taking a Triple-A at-bat.
MLB had a more normal schedule in 2021 with the minor league play. Fellow prospect Alex Kirilloff looked primed to play significant time with the big league club. There was some hope that if Lewis had a strong campaign, he could finally play in Minneapolis.
All of a sudden, Lewis once again had another curveball thrown in his path to the Twins when the team announced he would miss the 2021 season with a torn ACL in his right knee suffered at the beginning of Spring Training.
For as frustrating and concerning an ACL injury is to a top prospect like Lewis, many players have gotten injured in the minors and turned out just fine. For example, Sanó missed time due to an injury in Spring Training of 2014 that required Tommy John surgery. All Lewis needs to do is log some more at-bats in a real minor league season, and he can attempt to pick up where he left off. He still has time to establish himself as one of baseball’s rising stars.
Sanó was able to bounce back, earning himself a big-league call up one year after Tommy John surgery in 2015 with an immediate impact on a club looking to jump back into contention. Lewis can become a playmaker for the Twins, but he won’t have the luxury Sano had of immediately getting back into the game once he’s healthy.
There is no shortage of promise for Lewis’ career, even with the roadblocks he’s faced on his path to Target Field. What do the Twins do with a top prospect who is now 22 and coming off a major knee injury? One who’s had no at-bats since 2019 and none higher than Double-A ball?
The Twins front office must have been thinking the same thing after acquiring a top-five 2020 pick, Austin Martin, in the Berrios trade. The shortstop/outfielder immediately became the team’s No. 2 prospect behind Lewis. Falvine could have just wanted to add another top position player prospect. But it could also be a way to hedge their bets if Lewis can’t pick up where he left off.
Adding to the difficulty is that while the minor leagues can still go on as scheduled, Lewis wouldn’t be able to participate in a minor league season during a lockout because he is currently on the 40-man roster while Martin is still eligible to play. Lewis needed to be on the 40-man roster, but the downside is that he will again have at-bats taken away from him when he needs them most. Players currently on the 40-man roster can’t be optioned off during the work stoppage either, which keeps Lewis away from organized play until the lockout ends.
Lewis is still the best prospect in a solid Minnesota farm system, even though his injury caused him to slide down to No. 35 league-wide. The only way Lewis can improve and get himself ready for the big leagues is to get back onto the field in some meaningful games. If this lockout continues at this pace, Lewis will lose out on some crucial playing time that could set his career back despite his prodigious talent.