When Fred Lewis was discussed as a prospect, it seemed like his slow progression through the minor leagues was dismissed because he was more focused on football in college. It started to seem a bit disingenous after a while. It isn't as if Lewis was found in the attic of a Belgian monastery at the age of 21 and had never heard of the the game of baseball. He was still playing it in high school, and he was still a baseball player at the college level. There's only so much mileage you can wring out of that excuse. At some point, you have to start judging his results as a baseball player, regardless of the backstory.
As a baseball player, Lewis was doing well enough. He hit .301/.424/.451 as a 23-year-old in the California League, .273/.361/.396 as a 24-year-old in the Eastern League, and .276/.375/.453 as a 25-year-old in AAA last season. The on-base percentages were consistently above average, but he was always a little on the older side of his competition. There are probably a hundred guys in the minors who have a similar statistical profile to Lewis.
But danged if he doesn't just look like a baseball player. His swing is beautiful, and he can pull the ball or go the opposite way. He runs as well as any Giant in recent memory; if he collided at the plate with Bengie Molina, I'm not sure if they would explode or disappear. Now I get why folks never got off the Fred Lewis bandwagon. He must have always looked as if he were one plate epiphany away from figuring the game of baseball out and becoming a perennial All-Star. Age, schmage. The kid looks like he can play.
The question: Are there players who come to the majors without having a history of minor league dominance, but who make a substantial impact on the majors? Of course. The tricky part, though, is finding examples who weren't rushed up to the majors at an early age and who would be good comparisions to Lewis. Some names that sprang to mind:
Matt Holliday probably isn't the best comparison to Lewis, because Holliday slept with a magical toad or something. In over 2000 at-bats, Holliday's career minor league numbers were .275/.351/.418. That's pretty close to Lewis's .281/.382/.409 career. One day, though, Holliday woke up and decided he was one of the better outfielders in the game. Also, he slept with a magical toad or something. Holliday is a extreme example of a player who has a light switch turn on in their brain. It isn't fair to compare anyone to Holliday.
Brian Jordan was an NFL cornerback, so he gets a lot more slack with the football excuse. Jordan didn't even get more than 71 at-bats in the minors until he was 24, and was then plopped in AAA. It's amazing that anyone could survive that gauntlet. His rookie season came at age 25, and he didn't do so hot (.207/.250/.373). He was much better the next year, and he carved out a nice career for himself. The circumstances were so unusual, though, that it isn't fair to compare anyone to Jordan, either.
I don't know. Adam LaRoche, maybe? They're two very different ballplayers, but it's a career path that isn't crazy to hope for from Lewis. LaRoche was steady but unspectacular in the minors. His rookie numbers were as good as those of his previous minor league seasons, and he was able to excel even more.
Long post short: Just because a guy isn't a super prospect, it doesn't mean he's automatically doomed to Dante's circle of fourth outfielders. I'm still skeptical that Lewis will ever be a starter, but I'd love to be wrong.
Also, I'm wondering if it's about time to give up on Todd Linden.