You could call it one of the Golden Rules of Roster Management.
Build through the middle – catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field.
These are the players with the greatest likelihood of being involved in a play on defense, occupying positions that require a skill set unique enough that contributions at the plate are often considered a plus.
The Padres appear set for the long-term at three of these spots on the field. Catcher Austin Hedges has garnered wide acclaim for possessing the defensive potential to replace Yadier Molina as baseball’s best backstop when the Gold Glove winner calls it a career, and his rapidly-improving swing has him on a near 25-homer pace in his first full season in the majors.
In center field, the hometown team has rookie Manuel Margot, a rangy defender with leadoff-man potential and the pop to chip in double-digit homers. Some growing pains this year have him sitting on the disabled list right now with a calf injury and a .259 batting average, but he is arguably the team’s best chance at major hardware in the near future.
At second, meanwhile, the team currently shuffles streaky, statistically-strange power bat Ryan Schimpf and switch-hitting fan favorite Yangervis Solarte. The real talent at the keystone, though, is minor leaguer Luis Urias, who at just 19 years of age is tearing up Double-A ball in San Antonio to the tune of a .342 average with 34 walks against 27 strikeouts.
Shortstop, however, remains a problem area for the team. Erick Aybar is obviously not a long-term solution at the position, and Allen Cordoba remains unproven at the big-league level despite a small sample of star play in 2017. In the minors, the team’s best option, Fernando Tatis Jr., projects as a third baseman as his young frame continues to fill out, and other middle infield prospects such as international signee Luis Almanzar and trade acquisitions Jose Rondon and Javy Guerra are either too young to pencil in for the long haul or have lost the prospect sheen that brought them to the organization in the first place.
Enter prep bat Royce Lewis, a shortstop and center fielder for JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano, CA (the alma mater of the aforementioned Hedges). Lewis, a preseason Rawlings-Perfect Game All-American and three-time Trinity League MVP, just finished up a senior season that saw him swing his way to a .388/.569/.662 triple-slash line with four homers and 23 steals. Furthermore, he won’t turn 18 until June 15, a few days after he is projected to be selected in the top half of the first round of the MLB Draft, and is said to be high on the Padres’ radar. Is the athlete some scouts are calling the best position player in the draft worth a longer look from the Padres with the third overall pick? Let’s see for ourselves.
Lewis’ calling card is his athleticism, with 70-grade speed that allows him to show off exceptional range both on the dirt and in the outfield. That speed, which Perfect Game clocks at a 6.64-second 60-yard dash, also projects to continue to allow Lewis to be a threat on the base paths at the next level, swiping bags and taking the occasional extra base on balls in the gap.
At the plate, Lewis uses an unconventionally high leg kick that engages his lower half very well and combines with quick hands to create surprising power from his lean 6’2”, 188-pound frame. While he likely won’t be a true homer hunter even as his body matures further, his potential for extra-base pop is evident. Many scouts are in agreement that his advanced feel at the plate, as evidenced by his 24 walks against just 7 strikeouts this season, will also allow him to post above-average on-base percentages even at the highest levels.
The hesitation of any general manager surrounding Lewis’ talent should lie not so much in legitimate drawbacks, but rather in a simple question: where can he play? His arm grades out as no better than average, and will likely pull him away from shortstop in the long-term. He is noted for showing raw actions around the bag that could be improved on and allow him to settle in at second. However, many talent evaluators say that Lewis’ best fit may be in center field, where his plus speed will be able to be put to greater use and his defensive movements have looked most natural over the course of the spring.
It is this question that has personally given me pause since Lewis’ name first showed up on draft boards early in the spring. The UC-Irvine commit possesses the kind of toolsy skill set that often puts younger players at or near the top of prospect rankings, and while it’s easy to dream on hardball highlight reels roaming the Gaslamp Quarter, these athleticism-first prep stars seem to disappoint more than they succeed.
Remember the last time the Friars held the third overall pick? The organization opted for a high school outfielder by the name of Donavan Tate, described by Perfect Game as “about as athletic as they come.” Tate struggled with injuries throughout his career, never progressed past the High-A level, and recently signed on with the University of Arizona as a quarterback candidate for the 2017 season. That’s less than ideal for a top-five pick.
A logical fallacy in anecdotal evidence? Possibly. And yes, Lewis seems to present a little more polish to go long with his obvious physical tools. I’m certainly more confident in his ability to be a contributor at the big league level at some point than other middle-of-the-diamond bats in this year’s class. However, given the Padres’ prior missteps in the early rounds of the draft, I’m hesitant enough to prefer some of the other names – Kyle Wright, Mackenzie Gore, Hunter Greene (if he falls), etc. – at the top of the draft over that of Royce Lewis.