By Bob Dutton
The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — If a sunny disposition and an upbeat attitude truly play a role in a patient’s recovery, then outfielder Kyle Lewis stands a great chance of returning to form after a catastrophic knee injury.
“Circumstances happen,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys in tough circumstances, so who would I be to take the selfish approach and be upset about everything? I just try to have fun. Lessons come out of everything.”
The current projection calls for Lewis, the Mariners’ top prospect, to return to game action in mid-July — or roughly one year after suffering the injury.
“If you ask him, he probably thinks he’s well ahead of schedule,” said Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development. “He looks great. His mindset is tremendous. He’s in good spirits.
“It was a massive injury that he sustained, but I would expect some time around the All-Star break that you’ll see him on a full-season club competing.”
That suggests Lewis, 21, will be resuming his career at Lo-A Clinton.
“I feel great,” he said. “I’m coming along nicely. I’ve been checking all of my boxes. Making all of my progressions. I’m right on track to where I want to be and where we scheduled me to be.
“I’m just trying to trust my trainers and to take it slow. Not try to rush anything.”
Despite the injury, Lewis enters the season atop the Tacoma News Tribune’s Top 10 rankings of the organization’s prospects. Nearly all major prospect-ranking services put him first in the Mariners’ system.
“Lewis is an offense-first center fielder,” Baseball America reported, “with plus power to all fields and a patient approach that allows him to control the strike zone and punish mistakes.”
The only question, really, is whether he’ll be the same player when he returns.
It’s been nearly seven months since Lewis suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, plus tears to the medial and lateral meniscus, in a collision at the plate while playing for the Everett AquaSox.
Lewis was just 30 games into his pro career but already drawing comparisons to Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones — a long-time role model — when everything changed that July 19 afternoon at Everett Memorial Stadium.
Nick Thurman sent a two-out grounder through the right side in the seventh inning that brought Lewis sprinting home from second base.
Lewis scored but suffered the injury as he slammed into Tri-City catcher Chris Mattison. The extent of the damage wasn’t immediately known. The answer came after a full examination. Very bad.
“It’s heartbreaking for a guy who just signed and was having the year of his life,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said upon learning the news. “Winner of the Golden Spikes (as college baseball’s top player) and off to a tremendous start (at Everett).
“North of a .900 OPS for Everett and giving us every reason to believe he was exactly the player we thought we were drafting.”
Part of what the Mariners initially liked about Lewis was his can-do attitude in the face of personal adversity. He grew up in Snellville, Georgia, which is roughly 25 miles from Atlanta and in the heart of the Southeastern Conference.
Lewis ended up at Mercer in Macon, Georgia, because no SEC school offered him a scholarship. Three years later, he was the nation’s consensus college player of the year after displaying an enviable blend of power and athleticism.
Mariners officials were beside themselves that, for whatever reason, Lewis remained available last June when their pick came at No. 11. If other clubs harbored doubts because he hadn’t played in a power conference, they didn’t care.
“I think we had Kyle at No. 3 on our board,” said Tom McNamara, who then served as the club’s director of amateur scouting. “We like the swing. He’s short to the ball for a guy with long arms.
“We hope he’s going to be a really good player, but we feel really good about the person and the work ethic.”
Lewis signed quickly for precisely the bonus slot value of $3,286,700. He admitted he was anxious to get going, and he reached Everett in time for the June 17 season opener.
“I had the contract pretty much ready to go,” he reasoned. “So I figured, ‘Why not?’ Let’s get up here and get going.’”
Lewis got off to a slow start at Everett with two hits in 19 at-bats over his first five games. Thereafter, he went 33-for-98 for a .337 average with 25 RBI in 25 games. He also posted a .416 on-base percentage and a .602 slugging percentage.
Then came the play at the plate.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that Lewis’ response to his injury was a heightened work ethic, which included moving to Arizona in order to be near the Mariners’ year-round complex in Peoria.
“It’s the best weather I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You wake up, and it’s sunny every day. If you aren’t happy in Arizona, then you just aren’t a happy person. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever seen.”
Lewis refuses, at least publicly, to submit to depression or self-pity. But, yes, it was hard, he admitted, to simply stand and watch recently when the Mariners held a clinic for top prospects in Peoria.
“It’s part of life,” he said. “Everybody’s had to watch at some point. Look at most of the major guys, they deal with injuries. Mine just happened to come earlier, but I’ll be back.”