Royce Lewis returning from the torn ACL that cost him the entire 2021 season to hit .310/.430/.563 in his first month at Triple-A would’ve been an incredible story on its own, but it turns out that was just the beginning.
Called up on May 6 to fill in for the injured Carlos Correa at shortstop, Lewis has provided an undeniable spark for the Twins offensively and defensively, and on Friday night at Target Field he lined a grand slam to left-center field for his first career homer. It broke open a Twins win over Cleveland, and earned Lewis a curtain call from the fans who have been anticipating his arrival for years.
“This fan base has always been really, really special to me,” Lewis said. “They have always been great to me. Minnesota nice. It was pretty much everything I could have imagined and more. This whole debut … has just been truly special. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation or better scenario. Everything that’s been happening has been truly special beyond belief.”
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) May 14, 2022
Lewis is popular among his new teammates, both for his outgoing personality and for the adversity he’s overcome to reach the big leagues a month before his 23rd birthday, and the reaction in the dugout was every bit as enthusiastic as it was in the stands. Correa was waiting at the top step of the dugout to greet him first, and from there Lewis went through a procession of high-fives and hugs.
“You saw the guys rallying around him, enjoying it with him,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “And then the fans were really hot. They were wanting something there (with the bases loaded). They were giving it to Royce and Royce was able to give it back to them. Those are not everyday types of things that you see when you come to the ballpark and I consider it pretty special. It was great.”
Lewis took particular note of Correa’s support, describing him as “maybe more excited than me.”
“This is the moment we’ve all been dreaming about, you know?” Lewis said. “Playing together on the big stage and having fun doing it. Each and every one of my teammates, I think they all were really elated for me. I just had so much fun celebrating with my teammates, who I really love and care about, on and off the field. I cannot wait to continue those relationships.”
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In addition to the fifth-inning grand slam, Lewis also hit a double earlier in the nine-run inning. And his hardest-hit ball of the evening — and the hardest-hit ball by any Twins batter this season — was a 114 mph rocket to third base that Jose Ramirez snagged for an out. Lewis put balls in play with expected batting averages of .950 (homer), .720 (lineout) and .610 (double).
“I mean, he hit a ball 114 off the bat,” Baldelli said. “You don’t see those things too often from a young, wiry middle infielder who hits the ball like that.”
Drafted first overall in 2017 as a California high schooler, he had immediate success in the low minors and established himself as a consensus top-10 global prospect following his first full season in 2018. Lewis appeared to be on the fast track to Minnesota, but then he struggled in 2019, hitting just .236/.290/.371 with 123 strikeouts in 127 games between High-A and Double-A.
Suddenly there were questions about his plate approach, swing mechanics and defense at shortstop, and Lewis tumbled down national prospect rankings. He was unable to provide timely answers when the 2020 minor-league season was wiped away by COVID-19. Twins officials praised the work he put in behind the scenes, but his prospect stock remained on hold.
Having already lost a crucial season of development time, Lewis hurt his knee just before reporting to spring training last February, and spent the whole 2021 season rehabbing from surgery. By the time he stepped into a Triple-A batter’s box last month for the first time, Lewis had gone more than two full calendar years — 28 months, to be exact — without game action.
If there was any rust to shake off, or any limitations remaining from the knee injury, it was impossible to see it. Lewis racked up 27 hits and 17 walks in 24 games for the Saints, including three homers and 12 doubles/triples. He also stole eight bases in nine attempts and made numerous highlight-reel plays at shortstop, showing his elite speed and athleticism were intact.
“I feel comfortable in my approach at the plate,” Lewis said. “I’ve actually been working a lot harder on just trying to stride directionally, and keep that focus and keep that going. I think it just puts my body in the best shape and the best condition to have a consistent at-bat each and every time I go up to the plate. So now, it’s a matter of hitting my pitch in the zone and staying disciplined.”
Everything about Lewis’ first month was hugely encouraging, but his missed development time combined with Correa having shortstop covered meant the Twins had no immediate plans to call him up. Everything changed on May 5 when Correa was hit on the hand by a fastball, and the next day Lewis found himself in the majors for what has turned into an extended stay.
Exactly how extended remains to be seen. Through seven games in a Twins uniform, Lewis is hitting .320 with a homer, two doubles and a .520 slugging percentage while holding his own defensively. However, with Correa scheduled to return from the injured list next week, Lewis’ path to everyday playing time would become blocked.
“We’re operating on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis right now,” Baldelli said. “We’re trying to get our entire group healthy. Every time we think we have things kind of leveled out, we have another health hiccup that makes us reassess everything. Could we see (Lewis) here? Of course. Is there a chance that we don’t for a while, and see him back again very soon? Of course.”
Lewis has played almost exclusively shortstop for his minor-league career, save for limited 2019 reps at third base, second base and center field in the Arizona Fall League. He remains the Twins’ shortstop of the future, and that future will begin in 2023 if Correa opts out of the final two seasons of a three-year, $105.3 million contract. They want Lewis getting as many shortstop reps as possible.
But that can’t happen in the majors when Correa is healthy, which means the Twins will need to weigh whether or not Lewis can have a big enough impact playing elsewhere on the diamond to justify putting his shortstop development on hold. And, if the answer is yes, can he jump right into a utility role or would he need some experience working elsewhere in the minors first?
“I think that’s more of a conversation for the future,” Baldelli said. “Have we discussed it more in general terms? Yes. But once the season starts it’s not really a general terms kind of discussion. He’s got great ability. He could probably play other places on the field and do it very well. I would not doubt that one bit. But I think those decisions will come as time goes on.”
Asked about the possibility of playing so well that the Twins change their plans and keep him in the majors even after Correa returns, Lewis insisted that’s not his mentality, focusing instead on how thrilled he is to be healthy and “playing the game I love.”
“I’m going to play where my feet are at,” Lewis said. “Very cliche term, but it’s true. I’m here now. I could be in St. Paul or Wichita. Doesn’t matter. I’m going to play my game to the best of my ability and continue to learn and grow.”
(Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)