Lewis, a Mississippi native, was drafted by the San Francisco Giants out of Southern University A&M College (the same school that produced Lou Brock and Rickie Weeks) in the 2nd Round of the 2002 Draft. The lefty-hitting, righty-fielding Lewis was well-regarded, having been ranked by Baseball America as the 78th best prospect in baseball at one point. In the minors, Lewis displayed excellent on-base skills and steadily increasing power until he became a big-leaguer in 2007 after posting big numbers in AAA. Lewis had the interesting task of replacing Barry Bonds in left field for the Giants and he performed quite well in 2007 and 2008, hitting .282/.351/.440 in 2008, with 21 steals (75% success rate), 9 home runs, 11 triples, and 25 doubles. He walked 51 times. Lewis also performed quite well in the field, particularly relative to his fellow left fielders around the league.
The Giants entered last season with high expectations for Lewis, moving him from being almost exclusively a leadoff hitter in 2008 to the middle of the lineup. Lewis started well but hit the skids a couple of months into the season, and ended up having a disappointing 2009, his first below-average offensive year since entering the league (although his worst year was still better than an average Jose Bautista season, more on that later). Lewis was awful against lefties, but quite good against righties (.795 OPS) in a park that is historically very tough on lefties.
Lewis was hoping to bounce back in 2010 but sustained a rib injury in the spring and began the year on a minor-league rehab. Lewis, 29 now, is out of minor-league options and when his rehab ended, the Giants felt they had to move him. It's perhaps a questionable decision on their part, but their loss is Toronto's gain. For his part, despite his troubles going north, Lewis is very excited to be a Blue Jay.
So, are the Jays getting the Lewis who displayed above-average offensive and defensive (at least, relative to his peers) skills in 2007 and 2008, or the disappointment of 2009? It's interesting. Lewis' 2009 struggles can't be chalked up to poor luck, as he managed a .348 batting average on balls in play, but his batted ball tendencies remained very similar to 2008, other than a normalization of an absurdly low infield-fly rate in 2008, a slight increase in his line drive rate, and a very slight downtick in his home runs/fly ball. Perhaps inclined to be more aggressive after being moved to an RBI spot, Lewis swung at more pitches and had more trouble making contact in 2009 than 2008. His contact rates have been steadily decreasing since 2007, and his Z-contact % (ability to make contact on pitches within the strike zone) has plummeted 10% since 2007, a huge swing.
That said, Lewis remains an above-average defensive left fielder (though that's not a high bar and he'd likely be below average in the other outfield positions) and brings solid on-base skills. He's in his prime and is a good candidate to bounceback, particularly now that he's out of a stadium that is very tough on lefthanded hitters, and most projection systems thought he'd return to 2008 levels, which would be very useful on an offense-starved Jays' team.
In a way, he's a perfect fit for the Jays, as they are currently playing Jose Bautista in right field every day, in large part because they want his bat at the beginning of the lineup. Lewis gives the Jays both an ideal platoon partner for Bautista, who hits lefties quite well but righties consistently abominably over a very large sample size, and an excellent top-of-the-order type bat. He could either try right field, or the Jays could move Travis Snider to right on days where Lewis starts (my preferred option). His ability to get on base against righties will mean that far more Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Aaron Hill (come back soon, Aaron) hits will be driving in runs than if Bautista were playing.
This is a sharp move by Anthopolous and now the Jays just have to work Lewis into the lineup in the role for which he is quite well suited. Welcome to the team, Fred.
Today's title comes from the song "Here I Am" off the great debut record by the Spring Standards. The record, which is called Would Things Be Different, just came out and it's great. Full disclaimer - when I used one of their other songs for a post title, they took notice and were kind enough to send me a prerelease copy of the new record.