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The complex case of Lewis Brinson

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A status update on the talented outfielder who has spent the majority of his 2019 campaign in Triple-A New Orleans to refine his mechanics and prepare himself to reclaim an everyday role with the Marlins.

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The severe struggles of Lewis Brinson in the major leagues left the Marlins with no choice but to demote him to Triple-A New Orleans earlier this season. That’s where the former top prospect remains, with no clear indication of when he’ll get another opportunity.

What happened? What went wrong?

Prior to being sent to the Marlins in the Christian Yelich trade, Brinson was unanimously regarded as one of MLB’s rising young stars. Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline had the toolsy outfielder ranked among their top-30 prospects entering the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Although rebuilding trades in the first winter under new Marlins ownership yielded a handful of intriguing players, Brinson and Monte Harrison—included in the same Yelich package—would assume the two highest spots in Miami’s organizational top prospects list. Harrison was somewhat of wild card, lacking in amateur experience while splitting time with other sports and showing swing-and-miss issues as a professional. Brinson was believed to be a sure thing, not to mention a marketer’s dream considering that he grew up a devoted Marlins fan.

Across his two seasons in Triple-A Colorado Springs, Brinson was nothing short of a superstar at the plate. Throughout 2016, in what was a rather small sample size of only 23 games, Brinson hit at a .382 clip with a slugging percentage of .614, tallied 20 RBIs, and 13 out of his 34 hits were for extra bases. In a much more representative 2017 season, Brinson continued to impress with a .331 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage, 11 stolen bags, and 13 home runs.

By the arrival of Spring Training 2018, Brinson had already become one of the brightest faces of a franchise that was “just gettin’ started.” He led the team in several offensive categories during Grapefruit League play with his .328 average, 19 hits, and seven doubles. Not only did his success in Spring Training hint at a phenomenally high ceiling for Brinson, but it also made a great first impression on a player that had been the most frequently discussed Marlin leading up to camp.

However, once the regular season rolled around, the inexplicable occurred. The presumed NL Rookie of the Year contender only realized his potential in occasional flashes, primarily defensively; the majority of his rookie season was an utter disappointment to himself, the Marlins, and fans alike.

In 109 games, in which he accumulated a total of 382 at-bats, Brinson finished the season with a mediocre .199 average and struck out 31% of the time. His brief major league tenure with Milwaukee in 2017, where he hit .106 and struck out at a concerningly high rate of 36%, proved to be unfortunately prescient.

Fish Stripes original GIF

Hoping to put his rookie struggles behind him, Brinson was emphatic about improving during the next season. Based on his performance in Spring Training 2019, his claim seemed legitimate. By the turn of the regular season, Brinson held a batting average of .278, second only to Brian Anderson’s .354 average, and clubbed five home runs in the spring.

Once again, though, that production didn’t translate to the regular season. Just 27 games into the season, Brinson had already dropped his batting average below the .200 threshold, and his strikeouts remained as high as ever.

In a disheartening move by the front office to say the least, Lewis Brinson was sent down to the New Orleans Baby Cakes on April 30 in a move that activated 1B/OF Garrett Cooper off the 10-day injured list.

To say that Lewis Brinson is ripping the cover off the baseball in Triple-A would be an incredible overstatement, but his offensive production has been much closer to what the franchise had hoped.

Entering Wednesday, his .277/.369/.454 slash line is a respectable one. Since his demotion to New Orleans, he has hit five home runs and is fifth on the team in RBIs with 26. While his strikeout rate still floats at a mediocre 26.8%, his increased plate discipline is represented by his 14 walks, which ranks as the sixth-best total on the Baby Cakes’ roster.

With a difference just short of ten games spent between the Marlins and the Baby Cakes in 2019, Lewis Brinson has drastically improved his batting average, he has hit for power, and he has been an impactful run producer for New Orleans.
Daniel Toll

Currently, there is essentially nothing preventing Lewis Brinson from being called back up to the major leagues. If anything, he could even be considered to be in a better position than ever to reclaim his role as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Rookie Harold Ramírez, a magician with the bat and a reliable defender with speed, has solidified his spot in the outfield on a nightly basis. But he is best utilized in a corner spot. The other two positions have been shuffled between a variety players, including the poorly-hitting veteran Curtis Granderson, the versatile utility man Rosell Herrera, and Austin Dean and Garrett Cooper.

Regardless, the Marlins are in no need to rush Brinson’s return. In developing shortstop JT Riddle as a center fielder, they have created a stopgap. While it is possible that Brinson is called up by the season’s end, his return should not be considered imminent.

For now, it seems that Brinson will continue to hone his talents in New Orleans to revive the championship-caliber player the Marlins perceived in him when they traded for him in early 2018. As long as the current Marlins outfielders remain healthy, his objective should be to continue showing improvements in the minor leagues and make himself a prime candidate for promotion once the opportunity presents itself.