Lewis focused on leveling up in AFL

Top Twins prospect takes on new positions to earn at-bats

Royce Lewis is sporting a .333/.412/.800 slash line with a 1.212 OPS over his first four AFL games. (Buck Davidson/Getty Images)

By Rob Terranova / MiLB.com | September 27, 2019 10:10 AM

Over 302 games in the Minors, Royce Lewis appeared at third base once -- as a late-game replacement -- and made one start in center field.

Through his first four Arizona Fall League games with the Salt River Rafters, the standout shortstop has already manned the hot corner three times and played a game in center.

So what gives?

Rumors have swirled that Minnesota is trying to increase the 2017 No. 1 overall pick's versatility to expedite his path to The Show. Another theory holds that a position change is in the works because the emergence of Jorge Polanco this season has blocked Twins' top prospect at his short.

According to Lewis, the truth is much less complicated. He just wants to play.

"This team is full with shortstops," the 20-year-old said. "And everyone has to get their work in so, basically, I was told that if I wanted to get some more at-bats and continue to work, I would have to play different positions. So if I was OK with that, I could come here, and if not, I could go home. And I didn't want to pass up a chance on playing in this amazing league.

"Some of my good friends are around, the weather is great here this time of year, I get to be closer to family, so I'm just having fun in general playing the game right now and it's starting to show."

Twins director of Minor League operations Jeremy Zoll backed him up.

"The primary reason for him to head to the Fall League was from an offensive perspective. To get him at-bats against high-quality pitchers," Zoll said. "But the way that the rosters are constructed -- there were other priority shortstops -- we were faced with the decision to send him and let him play around the field or not send him at all. So we all agreed this would be a good opportunity for him.

"Ultimately, circumstances contributing, it came down to us just wanting him to get those plate appearances against the best pitching possible."

Third-ranked Rays prospect Vidal Brujan and No. 7 D-backs prospect Geraldo Perdomo have been those "priority shortstops," as the pair has exclusively handled short so far for the Rafters. However, Lewis has still flashed his ability in the field and at the plate.

MLB.com's No. 9 overall prospect is 5-for-15 with two dingers, a double, two walks, six RBIs and four runs scored. He is slugging .800, while sporting a .412 OBP and 1.212 OPS.

"When we looked at Royce's career trajectory, we were looking for an opportunity for him to get as many plate appearances as he can at a high level of competition ... and the Fall League gives us another opportunity to put him in those situations," Zoll said. "And he's made the most of it so far."

Lewis also put his 70-grade speed on display in his Sept. 19 start in center field, when he tracked a fly ball to the wall and completed a spectacular play -- making it look routine in the process.

"I think that's just being an athlete," he said. "I just saw the ball there and went after it and tried to catch it. That's it."

Lewis split his first full pro campaign, 2018, between Class A Cedar Rapids and Class A Advanced Fort Myers, posting a .292/.352/.451 slash line with an .803 OPS with 14 long balls, 74 RBIs and 83 runs over 121 games. His performance earned him midseason and postseason All-Star honors, a Prospect of the Year award and his first MiLB.com Organization All-Star nod. But this season, he produced numbers less impressive than expected from a player of his caliber. He believes that missing a considerable stretch of String Training with an oblique injury was the root cause of an uncharacteristically slow start.

"I feel like we caught it early and shutting it down in Spring Training to stay healthy for the whole the year obviously worked out. Once I got my season started, I was able to put it completely behind me," he said. "But even though I felt great, physically, I could tell I was behind with my at-bats. Those Spring Training at-bats really mean a lot. Yeah, it's kind of long and they're tough, but you need to get those at-bats in, and that's kind of where I was when I started the season."

Lewis opened the year back with Fort Myers, batting .221 with two homers, 13 RBIs and 29 runs scored over his first 50 games with the Miracle. Over his next 44 contests, the California native posted a .256 average with 14 extra-base hits -- including eight taters -- drove in 22 runs and scored 26 times. That resurgence earned him a promotion to Double-A Pensacola on July 28, and he sported a .231/.291/.358 slash line with 12 extra-base hits, 14 RBIs and 18 runs scored in 33 games with the Blue Wahoos. He also helped Pensacola make it to Game 5 of the Southern League semifinals after the team fell into an 0-2 hole to open the best-of-5 series.

"I think it's easy to forget how young he is," Zoll noted. "There were a number of hitters at Fort Myers that started slow. It's pretty well known that the [Florida State League] is a pitchers' league. But I think everyone came out of that slump at different speeds and anytime you're missing playing time in Spring Training, it's obviously something you think about -- the impact you may or may not be having. But it was good to see him work his way out of it and continue to make strides with his swing and produce nicely down the stretch."

Offseason MiLB include

With the Minor League season done, the 2019 Futures Game selection tried not to carry any of those results -- or the questions they may have raised for some evaluators -- to the AFL.

"I don't have to prove anything to anybody," he said. "My sole focus is just to continue to improve my game. Whenever the day comes that I get the chance to play in the big leagues, I just want to be as ready as possible for that. It doesn't matter what position I'm playing or where I'm hitting, I just want to play at a high level and play the right way. That's what I'm focused on.

"That's why I'm here, to continue to better myself in each and every way. To just be professional and be one of the best ones to do it."

Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RobTnova24. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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