Derek Falvey and Thad Levine chose Royce Lewis over Hunter Greene and Brandon McKay with the first-overall pick in 2017, making Lewis the first draft pick of their regime. Falvey and Levine took over after the 2016 Twins lost 103 games, costing Terry Ryan his job, and there was a lot of pressure to take Greene. He was on the Sports Illustrated cover and threw 100 mph. McKay was a rare two-way player out of Louisville.
Still, Falvey and Levine went with Lewis. They were sold on his ability and attitude.
“We know he’s going to be a leader the second he steps on the field,” Falvey said at the time. “We’ll let the baseball play take care of itself.”
“He’s got that ‘it’ factor that a No. 1 pick needs to survive and move forward and have success at the end of the journey,” echoed the late Mike Radcliff, Minnesota’s vice president of player personnel. “He checked all the boxes for us.”
Greene owns a 4.36 ERA in two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, who took him second overall. McKay has yet to reach the majors. Lewis hit .300/.317/.550 in 12 games before tearing his ACL for the second time last year. But he’s back a year after he last suited up for the Twins, and he’s doing what he can to get them out of their .500 rut.
He even did a little Babe Ruth impression before the game.
“It feels so surreal, right? I think something special is going to happen tonight,” Lewis said before he took the field. “I couldn’t tell you what, but it just feels like it’s kind of that time.”
Okay, he didn’t quite call his shot. But Lewis hit a three-run home run in the third inning to put the Twins up 3-0 on the Houston Astros. Then he had a game-saving, two-out hit in the ninth to force extra innings. Minnesota won 7-5 in ten innings, ensuring they will split the season series with Houston.
Moxie doesn’t really set Lewis apart. Instead, it’s his attitude. Lewis has had leadership qualities since he was at JSerra high school in Southern California. That ‘it’ factor Radcliff described. He’s the kind of player who executives want to build around. It’s the reason why Falvey and Levine made him their first-ever pick.
Lewis doesn’t need to carry the team alone, no player can. He has Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, and Sonny Gray in the locker room with him. But he brings a necessary element to a team that can’t seem to run away with the weakest division in baseball.
Gray has done his part. He’s formed a three-headed monster with Joe Ryan and Pablo López that’s carried the team. But Buxton is hitting .225/.325/.455 and isn’t able to play center field yet. Correa is hitting .216/.308/.392 while playing sound defense. Neither player is killing [itlaics] the Twins, but they aren’t driving winning to the extent they can.
Lewis also isn’t the only prospect who’s contributing. Louie Varland and Bailey Ober are filling in behind Gray, Ryan, and López with aplomb. Alex Kirilloff is filling a vital role as a left-handed contact hitter. But even with their efforts, the entire machine is having trouble getting out of first gear.
Until they beat Houston on Monday, the Twins had not won the first game of a series since their 2-0 win over the Cleveland Guardians on May 5. They only won three games, total, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, and San Francisco Giants. They hit four home runs in a 9-7 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday, then lost 3-0 in a disjointed game.
Somehow the Twins are breaking historical precedent this year, yet can’t pull away in the AL Central. They took the season series from the New York Yankees for the first time since 2001. They won at Dodger Stadium for the first time since 2005. But they’ve also lost series to struggling teams like the Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox. A team that historically couldn’t pitch suddenly can’t produce at the plate. Correa signed a $200 million deal in the offseason and was hitting below the Mendoza line early this year. José Miranda is in the minors.
Lewis isn’t a savior. No prospect ever is. But he’s loosened things up, allowing Minnesota’s motor to hum again. The Twins have invested heavily in Correa and Buxton. They’re trying to get back to where they were in 2020, on a mission to finally break through in the playoffs. Lewis arrived at the right time. They needed his production in Houston. They need him to fill at third and pick up where he left off at the plate. Minnesota needs Lewis’ ‘it’ factor, and it looks like he’s prepared to deliver.