Royce Lewis‘s rise has been one of the Minnesota Twins’ biggest storylines this season.
Lewis always had potential. That’s why the Twins selected him first overall in 2017. But he’s put it all together this season, hitting .310/.372/.543 with 14 home runs, 51 RBI, and four grand slams in 56 games.
The breakout has all Twins fans thinking about what Lewis’s career could be. But it also could be a story of what could have been had Lewis never gotten hurt.
It started early last season when the Twins were leading the AL Central. They had a lineup that could hit with the best in baseball. Most importantly, it could also cover for a pitching staff that rarely made it past the fifth inning.
The Twins needed a boost, so they called upon Lewis, who was coming back from a torn ACL suffered in the spring of 2021. Lewis showed no signs of rust upon his return. He hit .313/.405/.534 with five homers, 14 RBI, and 12 steals in 34 games with Triple-A St. Paul. When Carlos Correa went on the COVID-19 list, Lewis had to make an impact in the majors.
The cup of coffee turned out to be a strong one. Lewis went 12-for-40 with two home runs and five RBI. Naturally, the Twins wanted to find a way to get him into the lineup even, with Correa entrenched at Lewis’s natural shortstop position.
They decided to put him into a super-utility role, and Lewis looked great at third base. The Twins pushed the envelope further. They wanted Lewis to play in center field, a position that Lewis had played while winning the MVP Award in the Arizona Fall League in 2019. However, that came to a screeching halt when Lewis crashed into the center field wall.
A second ACL tear in a 15-month span meant that Lewis would undergo a more intense rehab program and miss the first two months of the 2023 season. While it affected the Twins early this year, it may have had a domino effect dating to when he limped off the field that Sunday afternoon.
Correa may have stuck at short, but the Twins could have used Lewis elsewhere. Gio Urshela was a solid but replaceable player at third base, and Lewis’s athleticism would have been an upgrade over Jose Miranda.
Placing Lewis at third base would have given the Twins a solid infield even after Alex Kirilloff underwent surgery for his troublesome wrist. With Luis Arraez at first base, Jorge Polanco at second, Correa at short, and Lewis at third, the Twins could have had Miranda at designated hitter after Byron Buxton went on the injured list for good in early August.
Of course, Polanco’s injury combined with the pitching staff and Minnesota’s bad fortune wouldn’t have meant Lewis would catapult them to a World Series title. However, it could have prevented them from a late-September slide that left them 14 games out of first place after leading the division for most of the year.
The effect could have carried over to the offseason. Correa may have still failed his physicals after agreeing to mega-contracts with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. However, the Twins could have allocated their focus elsewhere knowing that they had a healthy Lewis ready to take over at shortstop.
Maybe this meant spending on a pitcher as opposed to trading Arraez to get Pablo López. Or it could have meant adding a premium bat to stick in the middle of a strikeout-prone lineup. Either way, Lewis would have altered Minnesota’s offseason plans. Maybe they could have gotten them off to a better start before they called him up at the end of May.
Just like Correa told reporters when he signed his new contract with the Twins, Lewis is here now. But it’s also interesting to wonder if Correa would be here if Lewis didn’t get hurt at all.
Consider the bizarre circumstances that came with Lewis’s first ACL tear. After slipping on some ice during a storm in Texas in February 2021, Lewis missed the entire season. That meant he hadn’t played baseball in two years, because he was unable to play in an organized game in 2020 due to COVID-19.
The long layoff created an aura of mystery surrounding Lewis, and the Twins needed to find a stopgap solution. Plan A was trading for Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the spring of 2022. However, when the New York Yankees were willing to take on Josh Donaldson’s contract, the Twins had to take advantage of it and find a Plan B.
That led to Correa’s agent, Scott Boras, calling the Twins to lay the groundwork for a one-year contract a few weeks later. But does any of that happen if Lewis is healthy?
If Lewis was able to play in 2021, perhaps the Twins would have been convinced to make him the starting shortstop in 2022. There would be no Kiner-Falefa trade, and the Twins may have been stuck with Donaldson over the final two years of his contract.
Donaldson’s $23 million salary would have made it hard to make many upgrades to the roster. Even though the additions have been $11 million for Joey Gallo, the Twins wouldn’t have been able to use that money not only on Correa but other players who could have helped the pitching staff in 2022 such as Carlos Rodón or Kevin Gausman.
Could a healthy Lewis have led the Twins to a division title in 2022? With the injuries that the team sustained, it’s very unlikely. But could Lewis’s presence jumpstart a youth movement that has seen Edouard Julien, Matt Wallner and others emerge in 2023? Absolutely.
It’s interesting to think of what could have been. But right now Twins fans are focused on Lewis’s future and whether that includes Minnesota’s first prolonged postseason run in 21 years.