Colby Lewis was one of the game’s best pitching prospects while coming up through the Rangers’ farm system, with Baseball America ranking him as their No. 32 overall prospect in 2003, sandwiched between Adrian Gonzalez at 31 and Josh Hamilton at 33.
That season he made 26 starts for the Rangers as a 23-year-old rookie, posting a hideous 7.30 ERA while opponents batted .317 with a .952 OPS in 127 innings. Shoulder surgery followed in early 2004 and Lewis didn’t return to the majors for 27 months. Over the next two seasons he was let go by the Rangers, Tigers, Nationals, A’s, and Royals while posting a 6.20 ERA in 40.2 innings as a reliever. And then that was it.
Lewis headed for Japan, but after back-to-back dominant (and healthy) seasons for the Hiroshima Carp he returned to the United States last month and has re-signed with the Rangers. Lewis inked a two-year, $5 million deal with a $3.25 million team option for 2012, and yesterday Texas general manager Jon Daniels made it clear that he’s guaranteed a spot in the rotation going into spring training:
We expect Colby to be one of five in our Opening Day rotation. This was not the development program we had in mind. It may be a little different path, but he has had a lot of success and a lot of experiences that make us feel that Colby will be a strong addition to our staff.
Lewis has the seventh-worst ERA in baseball history among pitchers with at least 200 career innings, but the former first-round pick is still just 30 years old and went 26-17 with a 2.82 ERA and exceptional 369/46 K/BB ratio over 354 innings in Japan. Had a Japanese-born pitcher posted those same numbers he’d have little trouble finding a deal for more than $5 million. For example, Kenshin Kawakami got $23 million from the Braves last offseason and Hiroki Kuroda signed with the Dodgers for $35 million two winters ago.
MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan notes that the Yankees, Twins, A’s, and Pirates were also interested in Lewis, but his familiarity with the Rangers and a guaranteed spot in the rotation no doubt led to a Texas return. Perhaps he’ll struggle again, but if you view Lewis as simply a pitcher who performed extremely well in Japan for two years rather than a former prospect bust it certainly makes sense for the Rangers to take a $5 million risk.