Trying to Make Sense of the Perplexing Royce Lewis Demotion
Twins Twitter was armed with torches and pitchforks upon notification that the other side of activating Carlos Correa was sending down rookie sensation Royce Lewis.
A waterfall of angst descended across the platform, with most wondering openly how a player who’d hit a stellar .308/.325/.564 through his first 40 big-league plate appearances was the first to hit the chopping block as the team — rife with injuries to position players — starts to creep closer to full strength.
“Why not Jose Miranda?” many lamented. It’s not a bad question, as Miranda has looked largely overmatched with a 5-for-53 start (.094/.143/.189) to his big-league career. Certainly Miranda, who has alternated between first and third base in his 14 games with the Twins, could be sent back at any moment with it being entirely justified.
In fact, it’s the opinion of this writer that Miranda’s body language is that of a player who is clearly out of sorts, and needs to return to Triple-A post-haste to regain his mojo.
But like most problems on a big league team, it’s a part of a puzzle that has all different pieces needing to fit in.
Miguel Sano is the team’s starting first baseman. He’s on the 60-day IL.
Alex Kirilloff is the team’s No. 2 first baseman. He’s been largely unproductive this season as he continues to work toward full strength from lingering wrist issues. He’s doing that work at Triple-A as we speak.
(As a brief aside, you can catch my radio hit from Thursday morning with KDLM in Detroit Lakes here, where we discuss the Lewis demotion among other things):
Luis Arraez is the team’s No. 3 first baseman. He has played a grand total of 113.0 innings at the position as a professional. When he moved to the position in the last few weeks, he hadn’t played first base since playing it for eight innings in a game with the Dominican Twins team in 2014 — when he was 17.
Miranda is the team’s No. 4 first baseman, and he’s just a veteran of 366.0 innings as a professional at first base — 74.0 of which have come this season.
What all of this means is that the Twins are stretched at first base, and will have to retain depth in any way they can in the short term. Max Kepler and Gary Sanchez have played some first base in their careers, but at this point would probably only do so on an emergency basis.
Does that mean Miranda is here to stay? Not necessarily, though again it would require the Twins to lean on another unproven first base-type for depth, unless Kirilloff is recalled at any point in the near future.
How does this affect Lewis, though?
Well, the Twins strong up the middle. That’s usually a good thing. But the Twins aren’t going to supplant Correa, a Platinum Glove winner at short, or Polanco, who looks good at second, to make room for Lewis in what would ultimately lend itself to being a part-time role.
Third base would make some sense, but Gio Urshela has been good defensively over there. Miranda can play over there. Arraez has filled in at the hot corner as well.
The primary issue, though, is asking Lewis to do something he hasn’t really done before.
Lewis’ level of experience at third is 13 games and 109 innings — between four innings in one game at Double-A Pensacola and 105.0 innings over 12 games at the Arizona Fall League in 2019.
In fact, that 2019 stint paved the way for the potential for Lewis to be more than just a shortstop. Well, maybe that’s not exactly the right way to put it, as shortstop is considered at or near the top of the defensive spectrum.
It wasn’t that the Twins had options ahead of Lewis at short — keeping in mind Correa signing with the Twins was literally a 13th-hour deal — but more of what I’ve perceived as a versatility preference for this front office.
Most of the team’s top prospects have positional versatility. To some, like Austin Martin, it’s potentially a detriment. But even Kirilloff can hang at first base or in the outfield. Good teams value that versatility.
But back to Lewis, who had played only short in 22 games with the Saints as well. Lewis was hitting .310/.430/.563 with the Saints and playing shortstop exclusively. But why not prepare him for a utility role to begin with?
The tricky thing here is that, honestly, it would have been hard to imagine Correa signing with the Twins in the first place. Once that happened, though, why wouldn’t Lewis move around rather than dropping anchor at the 6?
The primary reason, at least near as I can tell, has to do with his two-year absence from on-field action. Sure, he was at the alternate training site in 2020, but he hadn’t played in a meaningful game since the Fall League in 2019 when he suited up for the Saints this season. Some, in fact, felt like that might be a bit of an aggressive assignment for Lewis, who is still somehow just 22 but coming off hitting just .231/.291/.358 in his first stint at Double-A (back in 2019).
He wasn’t terribly impressive at High-A Fort Myers that season, either. He hit just .255/.327/.399 in 208 plate appearances with the Miracle, which essentially means the Twins pushed Lewis to Triple-A after two years off and not a terribly good 2019 season when he was playing.
Lewis cleared an especially impressive hurdle by threatening a 1.000 OPS at St. Paul to start the season. Again, he’d missed two seasons and had even fallen out of some top-100 prospect lists which he’d more or less dotted since the day he was signed.
He cleared another impressive hurdle by not only surviving, but thriving in the big leagues. He looked the part at short; but only at short. Eleven games isn’t enough to declare any big-league player as a finished product, even if some people openly asked if the Twins might trade Correa (they can’t legally do this yet anyway) to get valuable pitching and open up the spot for him at short.
Lewis is still facing difficult odds of maintaining this hot start. He clearly has the talent, but it’s fair to say the Twins don’t want to give him too much, too fast. Lewis is, of course, the first-ever draft pick by the Derek Falvey-Thad Levine brain trust.
Their legacy lies with Lewis.
It would not have been fair for the Twins to expect Lewis to pick up third base on the fly — or left field, for that matter. The left-field hole is being filled capably but temporarily by Nick Gordon — more on him later — though when everyone is healthy the Twins have four pretty capable outfielders ahead of him in addition to Gilberto Celestino (who has also been great).
So having Lewis thrown into the fire in left wouldn’t have made much sense with a Trevor Larnach return appearing imminent. Having Lewis tackle third base — an even more involved position than left, with more angles, cutoffs and intricacies to learn — while still learning what pitchers are trying to do to him, and will continue to try do to him as he matures, was going to be a lot to ask.
Lewis doesn’t have to have a future at short to have a future with the Twins — not by a long shot. But he’ll need to, at least in the short term, serve as the team’s Swiss Army Knife when he returns. Then, depending on what happens with Correa — who appears amenable to a long-term deal with the club — will determine the course of action for Lewis moving forward.
Additionally, some brought up the way the Twins more or less force-fed center field to Gordon and first base to Arraez. Good thought, but not exactly an apt comparison.
Arraez was a finished product as a hitter. He also moved all the way down the defensive spectrum at first base. Many a hitter have found themselves at first base for no other reason than they were playing in the NL without a DH or it was just the simplest place to stash a slow-footed masher or someone with less than ideal instincts elsewhere.
There wasn’t much risk in Arraez carrying any defensive failures with him to the plate. And by playing having Arraez play first base, they minimized the chances for those mistakes in the first place.
As for Gordon, it was more out of necessity that Buxton couldn’t play at that time — as well as the fact that he’s never been as highly-regarded as Lewis has. Sure, he was a pick near the top of the first round, but he’s never had the prospect steam Lewis can boast, at least not in terms of ceiling.
Gordon is a “see what you can get/catch lightning in a bottle” kind of young player. Guys who can play that many positions, even if they don’t hit, are valuable with a 26-man roster and a manager who likes to maneuver late in games.
In that sense, Gordon and Lewis aren’t the same kind of player. The Twins wanted to ease Lewis back in to significant action at a position of comfort for him. If all things had been equal, Lewis would have never come up in the first place. He was the only position player on the 40-man roster who hadn’t come up yet this season, and certainly there was no expectation that Correa would need to sit more than a game here or there.
But the Twins had their hand forced in bringing up Lewis when Correa was hit in the finger with a pitch — and sometimes those things work in the team’s favor.
Ultimately, the team has more position players who can hang than they do roster spots — making it a curious puzzle to put together.
Having Lewis sit behind Correa at short or learn a new position on the fly just wasn’t in the cards. And when he returns, he’s going to be a very important cog on a team with playoff aspirations.
Don’t be surprised if it’s soon, either. Never count out Royce Lewis.