Reality is finally setting in for Lewis Brinson.
Born and raised in South Florida, Brinson considered it “a dream come true” when news broke that he was headed to the Miami Marlins in January’s Christian Yelich trade. He used the same phrase to describe a surprise workout with childhood hero Juan Pierre after the deal became official (h/t Joe Frisaro, MLB.com).
But in just a few short weeks, he’s gone from Fish fan to face of the franchise—Pierre’s old No. 9 on his back, all of his bosses intently watching a round of batting practice.
On a club devoid of expectations for 2018, Brinson is already under the microscope. The rejuvenated farm system features lots of young talent, but no individual shows as much promise as this outfielder.
Yelich was the Marlins’ most valuable trade asset entering the offseason. As the centerpiece of the package they received in return, Brinson’s major league production will go a long way toward determining the legacy of that transaction.
Before Brinson plays a single game for his hometown team, we’ll take this opportunity to reflect on how he’s grown through 20 years of baseball experience...and where he could wind up a couple decades from now.
Lewis Lamont Brinson was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to parents Susie and Lewis Jr. According to Walter Villa of the Miami Herald, it was Susie who took her son to his first T-ball game as a four-year-old.
She would go on to have an enormous influence over his adolescence as a single mother—Lewis Jr. died of liver cancer when Brinson was only 10.
“It was tough at the time,” he said about the tragic loss. “My mom and myself were really strong. We didn’t crumble. We held our heads up.”
Brinson’s immense potential was obvious early on. At age 11, he met Northwood University baseball player Alvaro Gomez, who jumped at the opportunity to serve as his personal coach, Villa writes.
Gomez would go on to stick in coaching after his college graduation, founding the Gomez Sports Academy. He still displays a testimony from Brinson front and center on the academy’s website:
“Gomez can open a lot of doors for you. He’s played baseball all his life so he knows how you feel when you’re playing.”
Outside of starring at Coral Springs High School, Brinson spent summers competing with older players. Elite Squad Baseball president Richie Palmer initially had to watch from afar, ”not because we didn’t know about him, but because he was loyal to the group he had played with growing up and didn’t want to leave them,” he tells Fish Stripes.
Palmer recalls a year-long recruiting process to bring Brinson into his travel program. It was totally worth it:
“When you see a kid like him you just think to yourself, ‘he’s just different.’ He looks different in a uniform, the ball sounds different off his bat and even the mannerisms when he is walking around are different. I guess you can say that we always had a feeling that he was going to be in the big leagues because kids like Lewis don’t come around too often.”
In October 2011 (Brinson’s senior season), Elite Squad participated in the prestigious World Wood Bat Association (WWBA) National Championship. The tournament brings the top high school prospects in the United States in front of scouts from every MLB team. As if that weren’t legitimate enough, it’s hosted at the Roger Dean Sports Complex in Jupiter, on the same fields Brinson and the Marlins are using for spring training drills six-and-a-half years later.
That is when it became evident to Palmer that his No. 3 hitter was a likely first-round draft pick on a path to the major leagues. Sure enough, the Texas Rangers took him with their 29th overall selection in 2012.
Brinson’s performance across parts of six minor league seasons was characterized by struggles and dominance without much middle ground.
He faced his first professional adversity with the Single-A Hickory Crawdads in 2013, batting .237/.322/.427 in 122 games, striking out constantly (38.0 percent of his plate appearances). But the next summer, he slashed .335/.405/.579—72 percent better than league average, according to weighted Runs Created Plus—on his way to a quick promotion. His first extended stay at Double-A in 2016 raised concerns in the Rangers front office, so much so that the organization dealt him to the Brewers as part of the Jonathan Lucroy trade deadline acquisition.
Most encouraging for the Marlins, Brinson handled Triple-A with ease from the get-go. In 107 total games at the highest MiLB level, he was a .349/.409/.574 hitter with 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases. That didn’t translate into positive production during his MLB debut (.106/.236/.277, 30 wRC+), but there were flashes of brilliance that bode well for his 2018 NL Rookie of the Year chances.
Looking beyond the in-game stats, there are various opinions on Brinson from the industry’s leading talent evaluators. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs are impressed, ranking him No. 13 on their 2018 top prospects list. They caution that it may be a gradual adjustment for him at the plate against major league opponents, but project plus power while remaining as a center fielder—a rare combination.
However, ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider subscription required) was more conservative in dropping Brinson to No. 32 in his own estimation. Law noted the lack of durability in recent seasons and hesitated to fully credit that Triple-A success on the player when the Pacific Coast League is known to significantly inflate offense.
It’s still somewhat unclear what role Brinson will have on Opening Day, as the Marlins continue to kick the tires on free-agent outfielders. Depending on whether they seal the deal with a reputable veteran and how the 23-year-old fares in Grapefruit League competition, he might not be done with the minor leagues quite yet.
Whenever Brinson gets his shot at an everyday job, Coach Palmer expects him to thrive and emerge as a leader.
“Just because you are a first-rounder out of high school doesn’t guarantee you’re going to make it to the major leagues,” he says, “as we’ve all heard of the prospects that are considered to be ‘busts’.
“But that never crossed our minds with Lewis. We know what a great person he is and his mother did a wonderful job raising him. He made his teammates better by just the attitude and love he plays the game with.”
Coming off a tumultuous offseason where several players voiced their displeasure with the franchise, the Marlins hope Brinson can help establish a different culture moving forward. In the best-case scenario, he’ll mature into a star who excites South Florida and inspires kids to someday join the Fish, just like the old No. 9 did once upon a time.