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40 in 25: Kyle Lewis

It’s not too late for the Mariners phenom. Yet.

Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Mariners’ latest — and possibly final — flurry of activity two weeks ago saw them shake up the MLB lineup in a way we haven’t seen in over a year. Their trade with the Reds immediately inserted Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker into the everyday lineup, platoon rotation permitting. How exactly that lineup will shake out remains to be seen, though it’s a debate that has driven many a Mariners fan to near-madness over the past ten days.

If Winker is the left fielder against righties, Mitch Haniger is the everyday right fielder, and Jarred is the everyday center fielder, that’s great. But then who spells Winker against lefties? Do we just deal with his 57 wRC+ against lefties? The Mariners need to sign another center fielder, too! We can’t just run Jarred Kelenic out there every day!

Forgotten amongst many of these discussions I’ve had with friends in recent weeks, is Kyle Lewis.

Kyle Lewis’ career thus far feels emblematic of too many Greek myths to choose just one, but I’ll try. I wanted to say that he was Tantalus, because of how agonizingly close a five-win season has felt for him. Then again, Tantalus cooked his own son and tried to feed him to Zeus, so it didn’t exactly feel like a charitable comparison.

In the end, I chose Icarus. Kyle Lewis was Icarus, caught up with joy after taking flight for the first time after being called up in September 2019. His very first Major League Baseball game saw him hit a dinger off of Trevor Bauer to break up a shutout in the fifth inning.

The rest of the month went much the same way, as you can see above. Kyle swung, and swung hard, for almost all of his 75 plate appearance year. He put up a walk rate of just 4.0%, and a strikeout rate of 38.7%, but it was worth it: his ISO ended up being a whopping .324. Put plainly: he swung a lot. When he hit the ball, it went far.

It was a fun approach, but there was plenty of worry that it might not be sustainable, as our own Joe Doyle wrote about in August of 2020. Lewis cleaned it up in 2020, though. Across a “full” season, he more than tripled his walk rate (14.0% in 2020) and decreased his strikeout rate by a quarter (29.3% in 2020). The otherworldly ISO dropped, but the overall results did not: he posted pretty much the same wRC+ between 2019 and 2020 (128 vs 127).

He was our Icarus, soaring to heights the Seattle Mariners hadn’t seen from an offensive rookie since Ichiro. He was our Icarus, pinwheeling, and twirling through the sky, happy to finally just be healthy, after years of frustration in the minors. He was our Icarus, unanimously winning the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year award, setting the stage for a truly special 2021.

He was our Icarus, when he collided with a wall in Spring Training of 2021, bruising a bone and keeping himself out for nearly a year. When everything came crashing down even after he returned, getting ominously placed on the injured list for “knee discomfort” on June 1st. A week later, he was in surgery for a torn meniscus. Lewis and his hopes for 2021 fell into the sea, the wax holding his knee together melting as he soared toward the sun.

Now, after it finally seemed like Lewis’ career was back on track, his future was cast into doubt once again. This year isn’t feeling much better. On March 11, just one day after the lockout ended, Jerry Dipoto’s comments on Lewis gave fans plenty of reason for optimism.

“We’re really excited about where Kyle Lewis is right now just based on the feedback he’s provided, what we learned from his rehab professionals, and what we’ve seen on video of his baseball workouts,” Dipoto said. “He appears to be full go and ready to play.”

That certainly sounds encouraging, but at the time of those comments, Lewis hadn’t yet reported to camp. Nobody from the Mariners training staff had actually “laid eyes” on him, so to speak.

Cue a report from just yesterday, eleven days after that first one.

At this year’s spring training, the 26-year-old has been hitting, running, and playing catch, but he’s still not a full go in all activities.
[...]
General Manager Jerry Dipoto said it is unlikely that Lewis will be ready for opening day.

Alright, then.

Even when he does come back, Kyle Lewis’ days as an everyday center fielder appear to be more-or-less over. Jerry Dipoto’s recent comments on Jarred Kelenic seem to indicate that Kelenic is being given the opportunity to man center full-time, at least to begin the year. Lewis will likely be worked in at designated hitter to begin, then perhaps given playing time in the corner outfield. Perhaps Lewis, a righty, will be part of a platoon with the left-handed Winker.

Despite his much-maligned career and the pallor of pessimism and uncertainty that drive narratives (like this one) around Lewis, he is still just 26 years old. His original knee injury back in 2016 was to his ACL, the most recent injury to his meniscus. If he and the Mariners are patient with his recovery, and a little lucky, there’s no reason his knee couldn’t be relatively stable at some point in the future. Even if it’s not, he could have a productive career at the corners or at DH.

But this season feels like Lewis’ last chance to shake the “injury-prone” label. A productive Kyle Lewis that plays in eighty games could help the Mariners soar past their projections. An injury recurrence could spell disaster for the former Rookie of the Year’s once-burgeoning career.