The M's top prospect is trying to rebuild his career after a devastating knee injury nearly two years ago. The fact that Lewis was at the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday is another strong sign that he’s doing just that.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Here are words, simple yet profound, that will warm the hearts of Mariners fans, straight from Kyle Lewis:
“I feel I’m doing everything I was able to do before.”
The team’s top prospect is trying to rebuild his career after a devastating knee injury nearly two years ago, a quest that has significant ramifications for the organization. The fact that Lewis was at the All-Star Futures Game, a collection of the game’s best and brightest minor-leaguers, is another strong sign that he’s doing just that.
Lewis said he was thrilled to be chosen for the Futures Game as tangible evidence that all his hard work is being noticed. He started in left field for the U.S. team and played four innings, flying out to right and drawing a walk in his two plate appearances.
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It’s been a tedious grind since that fateful day in Everett – July 19, 2016 – when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee (as well as medial and lateral meniscus) in a home-plate collision.
Buddy Reed, a Padres prospect also at the Futures Game, was playing for the Tri-City Dust Devils that day and says he won’t ever forget the sound of Lewis screaming.
“It’s so great to see him back, and probably even stronger,’’ Reed said. “He’s put on a little weight, good weight, and he looks really good. He’s a complete player. He can do it all, and he’s getting his speed back, which I’m really happy to see.”
Lewis is hitting .266 in 47 games with Class A Modesto of the California League this year, with a .310 on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage, five homers, 18 doubles, and 32 runs batted in.
But it’s not really about numbers at this stage of Lewis’ career. The key is regaining the strength, speed and innate ability that made him, in some estimation, the top player in the 2016 draft. The Mariners feel they got a steal when Lewis fell to No. 11, and he was beginning to soar at Everett when the injury struck. The fact Lewis feels he has recaptured his skill set is a tremendous payoff for all the pain, suffering and work – replete with setbacks – that he has endured.
“I think when you hear someone gets hurt, you don’t really understand the magnitude of what they have to deal with, first mentally, restoring your confidence in your body, and then the confidence in your ability to play, is a tough task,’’ Lewis said.
“Then just getting re-acclimated, getting your body back in shape, and going through grueling days of rehab. There’s a lot of long days in there. But for me, you come out the other side a better person for it. Rather than trying to display how negative it could be, I think for me it’s been nothing but a positive.”
It’s that kind of attitude that endeared Lewis to his coaches at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., where he won the Golden Spikes award as a junior, and has earned raves from Mariners personnel. Modesto manager Mitch Canham marvels at the passion with which Lewis plays, despite all the travails.
“He loves driving in runs, loves slapping hands, competing. The better the competition, the better he plays,’’ Canham said in a phone interview. “I love the kid.”
In his first game back last year, Lewis crashed into the wall going after a long fly, leading to another setback. In one of his first games this year, playing Stockton, he raced back and made a leaping catch at the fence to rob a home run. Canham said he jumped up and down in the dugout after that one, and “you could see Kyle’s smile all the way from the outfield. He was glowing out there.”
Lewis goes by the same philosophy as Canham – if he’s cleared to play, he should play all-out.
“There’s not enough time to think about it,’’ Lewis said. “If the ball is coming toward me, I’m going to do whatever I can to try to catch it. The fear part isn’t really a thing for me anymore.”
Lewis has played all three outfield positions, with the majority in center, as well as some time at designated hitter when they think he needs a break.
“We’re trying to be the cautionary ones for him,’’ Canham said. “He’s a guy that lays out. He covers a lot of ground and he’s extremely competitive. We’re the ones to pull back and try to apply some pace to his game here and there.”
Canham falls into the camp that Lewis can come through this ordeal even better than he was before. He’s learned to battle through adversity, Canham said, and he’s developed a keener understanding of how to care for and prepare his body. The upshot is that Canham sees a future major-league All-Star.
“I do, with his attitude, athletic ability, work ethic, and how he rises to the level of any competition,’’ Canham said. “I think this kid is going to be a superstar. Everyone wants to be around him.”
Lewis is thrilled that the comeback has progressed to the point that he can play naturally again, without being preoccupied by his health.
“I’m excited to continue to get stronger and now see what levels I can really take it to,’’ he said.
The injury and its aftermath unquestionably slowed Lewis’s path to the major leagues, but he just turned 23 last week and should finally be back on the fast track. He is still rated by most as the Mariners’ No. 1 prospect, though first baseman Evan White is rising rapidly.
“Everybody naturally wants to move up fast,’’ Lewis said. “I want to move when the time is right. I want to be the best version of myself when I arrive (in the majors) so that I can have staying power.”
Whether he’ll be staying with the Mariners is the next burning question. With the trade deadline approaching and the Mariners positioned for a playoff run, there has been inevitable speculation that Lewis, as one of the team’s few coveted prospects, could be a trade chip.
Such talk, he said, “is an honor. … As long as you’re in demand, you must be doing something right. But I’m excited to be with the Mariners, and I enjoy being with the Mariners. I just play as hard as I can.”
Kyle Lewis is playing hard, playing without pain and showing signs of being the five-tool player he was always thought to be. For the Mariners, that’s all reason to celebrate Kyle Lewis at the Futures Game, and Kyle Lewis’ future.