What Lewis' return to the hot corner means for Twins

October 10th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS --  is back at the hot corner.

After the Twins had to hold their rookie sensation to DH-only duties for the AL Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays and the first two games of the AL Division Series against the Astros, Lewis was slotted in at third base as part of the Twins’ starting lineup in Game 3 on Tuesday, representing his first defensive action since Sept. 19.

“He's been making steady improvements for a while,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I'd say his hamstring is in a good place to play third base. You never make statements about, ‘Oh, this guy's 100 percent or not 100 percent.’ He's significantly better. We think he can make all the plays. He says, ‘I'm good to play third if you want me to play third.’”

With only two weeks between the Grade 1 left hamstring strain Lewis suffered that day in Cincinnati and the first game of the Wild Card Series, Lewis’ availability for the first round of the playoffs at all was in question until the night before the Twins set their 26-man roster against the Blue Jays.

Having Lewis available certainly paid off for the Twins that series, as he homered twice in Game 1 against Toronto to lead Minnesota to a 3-1 victory that snapped the organization’s 18-game postseason losing streak. He homered again in Game 1 against the Astros on Saturday, putting him one shy of the club record for homers in a single postseason.

As Lewis wasn’t at full speed on the basepaths for much of the postseason until he turned on the jets and emerged fine from grabbing his hamstring during a rundown between third and home in Game 2 on Sunday, Lewis said he understood the prudence of the decision.

“Between the trainers, the doctors and Rocco and staff, they've got to sometimes help me from hurting myself,” Lewis said. “So, in a way, it was smarter for me to back off. I think it was the best decision. I think we waited until ultimately I can start moving and make all the plays necessary without having to think about a hamstring or hurting myself in a sense.”

Here are some other ways in which this impacts the Twins:

1. Jorge Polanco moves back to second base
This is just as significant for the Twins as Lewis’ return to the dirt. They’d been playing Polanco, their everyday second baseman, out of position at third base at points since August to create room in the lineup for both Polanco and Edouard Julien, and that had been their primary defensive alignment against right-handed pitching early this postseason.

Though Polanco had experience on the left side from his days at shortstop, he didn’t look at all comfortable at third, making an errant throw on a routine grounder on the very first play of the postseason and also letting through a weak grounder in his direction that led to Carlos Correa having to make the do-or-die throw home to nab Bo Bichette in Game 1.

Polanco and the Twins are clearly better off with him at second base -- as he showed with a nice sliding stop and throw in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the ALDS to preserve Pablo López’s shutout effort.

2. Edouard Julien becomes the DH
Julien’s defense at the keystone had been a hot topic in the Twin Cities throughout the season, as the organization didn’t shy away from the fact that the rookie needed to work on his defense -- and in a big way.

To his credit, he did -- and by the end of the season, Julien’s defensive metrics had evened out to a Fielding Run Value of exactly zero, per Statcast, and he looked noticeably better and more comfortable via the eye test, too.

With that said, any one key misplay could make a significant difference in the outcome of a closely contested playoff game -- and series -- and defensive excellence has been an important part of why the Twins have been able to string together three victories this postseason. Polanco, a former shortstop, offers a safety net at second that Julien doesn’t, at least for now.

3. Could this impact the Byron Buxton conversation?
This conversation will only come into play if the Twins can vanquish the Astros and advance to the AL Championship Series against either the Orioles or Rangers, but Lewis vacating the everyday DH spot could create more of an opening for Buxton to perhaps enter the roster conversation.

Given the questions of Buxton’s ability to stay healthy while playing the field, he was left off the roster for both the Wild Card Series and Division Series -- but could this, say, open a possible role for Buxton as a DH against left-handed pitchers, especially with the Twins having used Andrew Stevenson very sparingly over the first two rounds of the playoffs?

Much will continue to depend on the condition of Buxton’s continually troublesome right knee -- he and the Twins continue to maintain that the knee is “day to day” -- but this, at least, opens the possibility that the roster fit could work a little better, especially if Buxton can stand in the outfield for a few innings a game.

But they’re not ready to have that conversation yet, since the Astros still lie ahead.

“As important as Buck is to our team and our organization, getting into all of the different directions that his availability could mean for us, at the moment, I think it takes away from what's going on at the moment,” Baldelli said.