SCOTTSDALE – Kyle Lewis experienced a rookie season like no other.
After he reported to spring training, MLB shut down camps, announced the cancellation of spring games and pushed back the start of the regular season. As numerous COVID-19 cases forced the league to adjust on the fly in order to play a 60-game regular season, the Seattle Mariners center fielder anxiously awaited his debut.
That day came during a postponed Opening Day, on July 24, and Lewis rose to the occasion with a 438-foot home run off Justin Verlander in his first at-bat. Seattle went on to lose to the Houston Astros, 8-2, but the game kicked off his campaign to win the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year award.
After four seasons with the Mariners, Lewis was acquired by the Diamondbacks at the beginning of the offseason on Nov. 17. The trade for Cooper Hummel, though overlooked by many, returned an experienced right-handed hitter with hopes of balancing a left-handed hitting team.
“He’s (a) Rookie of the Year (winner), that award doesn’t find itself getting handed out to average baseball players, he’s an excellent baseball player,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “He’s going to get some reps in left field, he’s a right-handed bat … and we needed that balance”
Lewis, picked 11th overall in the 2016 MLB draft, made an immediate impact behind six home runs in 18 games. The magic carried over to Lewis’s rookie season, which saw him bat .262 with 11 home runs and finish tied for 17th in MVP voting.
However, Lewis has hit a snag over the past two seasons. He has played in only 54 games combined due to a right meniscus tear that sent him to the 60-day injured list in 2021 and a concussion after being hit by a pitch last May.
“It’s tough … battling through injury and trying to figure out the best way to manage it and learn my body more,” Lewis said. “I was trying to get in more games, but I feel like it’s an opportunity in the future for growth.”
Lewis suffered a torn ACL weeks in the minor leagues in 2016, and the same knee has caused him issues since. After undergoing surgery to repair his torn meniscus in 2021, he suffered a bone bruise to the same knee that delayed his start to the season. He played a total of 36 games while batting .246 and hitting five home runs.
Last season, the Mariners eased Lewis into the lineup by starting him at Triple-A Tacoma to begin the season. The Mariners promoted him in May, but he played in only four games before the team placed him on the 7-day injured list with concussion symptoms.
Returning on July 22, Lewis played in 14 more games and batted .143 in 56 plate appearances before being sent back to Triple-A Tacoma, where he spent the rest of the season.
“It is what it is, you have to take everything in stride and put your best foot forward,” Lewis said. “The team had a job to do … I don’t really take it personally. I just try to keep moving.”
Entering the offseason, uncertainty grew in the Mariners’ front office coming off the organization’s first postseason appearance since 2001. One day after Seattle traded for power-hitting outfielder Teoscar Hernández, the club pulled the plug on its first Rookie of the Year winner since Ichiro Suzuki.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to being with Seattle my whole career, so it’s cool to get a new experience,” Lewis said. “I was excited to come to a team with a lot of talent.”
The Mariners clearly had no room for Lewis on their 2023 roster with Hernández, newly-signed A.J. Pollock, highly-touted prospect Jarred Kelenic and 2022 AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez manning the outfield. The Diamondbacks are in a similar position with lefties Jake McCarthy, Alex Thomas, rookie phenom Corbin Carroll and newly-acquired Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
That leaves Lewis to fill a potential platoon hole, providing the team with a right-handed bat to hit against lefties. Lewis could get some playing time in left field, but given his recent injury history, he is most likely to fill the designated hitter slot this season.
“I think I can help the team with my bat,” Lewis said. “It’s a long season, and I have a lot of confidence left, and I’m going to try and be ready for whatever.”
Overall, the Lewis trade is viewed as more of a low-cost, high-payoff move in dumping Hummell, who batted .176 in 176 at-bats and played catcher and left field – where the Diamondbacks already have depth.
As this year’s lineup shows promise, teammates and coaches are eager to see what Lewis brings to the table in 2023.
“When he’s healthy, he’s a really dynamic player,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Sometimes you just need a change of scenery, go somewhere else, new fresh eyes on him. I think if he gets healthy, he’ll help the Diamondbacks quite a bit.”