Hunter connects with Twins top draft pick
MINNEAPOLIS — The connection did not become clear to Torii Hunter until this spring.
As part of his duties as a special assistant in the Twins' front office, the five-time all-star outfielder was watching scouting video of potential draftees. When he came across a shortstop/center fielder named Royce Lewis from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the name finally registered.
William Lewis, Royce's father, had befriended Hunter during his five-year stint with the Los Angeles Angels. Lewis is a sommelier (wine steward) and part-owner at The Winery, a restaurant and wine bar in Newport Beach, where Hunter would bring friends and teammates for memorable meals.
"That's how I really got into wines. It was because William was a wine connoisseur," Hunter said. "He just took care of us at the restaurant. He'd come talk to us and suggest different wines for us to taste. He's always been pretty cool to me."
While some fathers might brag to major leaguers about their ball-playing sons, William Lewis put his professional duties first. He would take Royce out to Angels games, and had a picture taken with Hunter when Royce was 10, but there was no imposition for advice or free clinics.
"William was so humble," Hunter said. "We always kept in contact, and he'd check on me every once in a while after I left Anaheim, but he never told me once about Royce until this year. That's when I found out that was his son. I couldn't believe it."
When Lewis wound up the surprise first overall pick in the amateur draft, he recalled the text Hunter sent his father this spring after connecting the dots.
"Torii texted my dad saying, 'Hey, your son is actually pretty good,' " Lewis recalled. "My dad and I were laughing. He's a great guy. He always gave my dad advice about how to go about things. It's been really nice to have that major league assistance if it's ever needed. My dad always served him and connected."
Lewis, 18, has a gift for connection as well. Despite sitting in the top half dozen or so of most teams' draft boards for most of the spring, he steadily climbed the Twins' ranks as they got to know him and his family.
"This guy has a chance to change a franchise with his personality and charisma," Twins scouting director Sean Johnson said. "He's a magnet. Other guys want to be around him. He loves to play the game. When you see him, he's going to have energy. He's going to work at things. He'll be the first guy out on the field and he'll take care of his body."
While there were questions last fall and early this spring about Lewis' bat and ability to stay at shortstop, Johnson found himself becoming an enthusiastic convert. The Twins sent 16 different scouts and cross-checkers to watch Lewis and sleuth out off-field factors.
In addition to Hunter and fellow special assistants LaTroy Hawkins and Michael Cuddyer, big-league coaches Jeff Pickler and James Rowson studied tape of Lewis to determine if his skills would translate to pro ball.
"After getting to know him and seeing him play more and more, we just believe in him more than anybody else on the board," Johnson said. "He's got one of the best (personality) makeups of any player I've ever scouted. It's like talking to a (Carlos) Correa for the first time. He plays the game easy. He's a natural leader. He's a winner. He wants to be a champion. He's got desire. He wants to get better."
A high-level Twins scouting contingent met with Lewis and his family last September at The Winery. When the Twins were in Anaheim for a four-game series at the start of June, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine flew out for another dinner meeting with the family.
"His mom (Cindy) is also in the (wine) business," Johnson said. "They're very proud. It's a great restaurant, actually, if you're out there."
"They don't need a plug," he said. "They're doing just fine."
According to sources with direct knowledge, Lewis will sign for more than $6.5 million, still well below the approved slot value of $7.77 million. After holding exploratory conversations with a handful of candidates over the final 36 hours, including advanced talks with Louisville left-hander/first baseman Brendan McKay, the Twins circled back to Lewis, who just kept growing on them.
"I couldn't vouch for him, but I know the family," Hunter said. "I know his dad. First-class people, hard-working family. His dad has to entertain people, has to get to know people. He's built relationships. That's why he's still building. I'm pretty sure his son is going to be the same way."
It may be in a baseball context, of course, but the parallels exist for a player who says he takes great pride in "just treating everyone equally" and bridging gaps for people from diverse backgrounds.
"He has to make sure everybody's on the same page," Hunter said. "I'm pretty sure his son in the clubhouse is going to make sure everybody's OK so we can win."
Hunter said he and the rest of the Twins' draft room could glean that much just from watching video of Lewis interacting with teammates during national and regional all-star games.
"He's got the personality and the laugh," Hunter said. "From what we saw, he's jumping up and down, he's on the bench pumping guys up. His makeup is unbelievable."
Plenty of teen sports prodigies can play the game, but how many can make those around them better?
"That's rare," Hunter said. "That's rare to have fun and do that and enjoy himself and then go play his game. He has all the tools, but when you know someone has the tools, the character is what you draft. That's the separator."
As for the concerns about Lewis' hitting mechanics, Hunter believes those will be smoothed over by minor-league hitting coordinator Rick Eckstein and the rest of the Twins' development staff.
"That's stuff we can fix," Hunter said. "The upper body is perfect. He's straight to the ball—short swing, hits the ball to right center. He needs to use his legs more, which is an easy fix. We broke down his swing in there, Cuddyer and I, and we figured we can fix that."
In the end, the Twins believe William and Cindy Lewis' son will figure things out.
"He's such a great talent: strong arm, run, power, field," Hunter said. "He can do everything, and with that personality he has six tools and not five. Plus, he's a nice-looking kid, so easily you can market this guy."