Cubs Minor Leaguer works on earning new set of stripes

Lewis spent four years in the Air Force before working his way into Cubs' farm system

Cubs Minor Leaguer works on earning new set of stripes

MESA, Ariz. -- After an uneventful high school career as a pitcher and nearly four years in the military, Daniel Lewis is trying to make the transition to big leaguer. The Cubs hope he also can help Minor Leaguers learn the importance of teamwork.

How did he get to the Cubs? Let's go back to Croatan High School in Newport, N.C., where Lewis was on the team but wasn't a star.

"I was a guy where if it was 30-0 and we were winning, or 30-0 and we were losing, 'Hey, we need somebody to throw,'" Lewis said of his mop-up role. "I played first base and right field, primarily, and pitched when they needed me."

He chose to enter the military in 2009 and was stationed at Hurlburt Field, a U.S. Air Force installation located in Okaloosa County, Fla. Lewis didn't want to go into details about his assignments, but he did serve overseas. Upon his return in April 2013, Lewis called two college coaches and got a tryout at Pensacola State. He made the team.

Pensacola manager Keith Little then helped Lewis get an invite to the Cape Cod League, where he played on the Cotuit Kettleers for coach Mike Roberts, who liked to call the pitcher "Rambo."

Several teams saw the right-hander, including the Yankees and the Cubs. Lewis was bypassed in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft and after pitching nine innings over four games for Cotuit, signed with the Cubs last June for $60,000.

How could a guy who was a mop-up pitcher in high school sign with a Major League team?

"You've got this guy who's a little bit older, but at the same time, you can already tell he's going to be a great leader," Cubs Minor League pitching coordinator Derek Johnson said. "He is a great leader, he's a great worker, and wants to get better. He was on a little different career path than maybe what he thought he'd be doing. Now he's like, 'I'm playing professional baseball -- Whoa, what's going on?' He was a combat controller in the Air Force and now he's a Minor League baseball player. He switched gears pretty good."

Lewis is still pinching himself.

"I was probably [throwing in the] low- to mid-80s in high school," Lewis said. "Nobody's going to look at a guy like that. That's why I played first base and right field. I was really wild, too. I would give the credit to the velocity [increase] to the training I did [in the military] and all the swimming and running. I was low- to mid-80s and now I'm mid- to upper-90s."

Lewis, 23, didn't play baseball while in the service but chose what he called "attack sports" -- rugby and football. The training helped. His fastball hit 96 mph in the Cape Cod League.

"Everybody in the [Cape Cod] lineup is a 3-4-5 hitter at their school," Lewis said. "It's a lot of the best players from around the country. I was told, and believed, 'It's the closest thing to pro ball you can get without getting to pro ball.'"

While the velocity spike drew the desired attention, Lewis remains a little rough around the edges.

"He's as strong as an ox," Johnson said. "He pitches like one, too -- and I say that tongue in cheek. He's a bull in the china shop."

That was Lewis' description of his pitching style, as well, saying his goal used to be to throw it by everyone.

"[I've learned] it takes a little finesse," Lewis said. "I never thought 'finesse' and me would go together, but it's worked out."

He was assigned to short-season Class A Boise after signing, and in eight games from July 31 to the end of August, he gave up one earned run on six hits and six walks while striking out 13 over 10 1/3 innings. He arrived at the Cubs complex this month, and his early bullpen sessions have shown huge improvements. He credits Johnson's offseason program with helping his control.

The plus for the Cubs is that while Lewis may be older, his arm definitely doesn't have any wear and tear.

"It really feels like a dream," Lewis said. "I love baseball. I liked it when I was a kid and loved playing. Everybody sees himself as a kid playing in the World Series and playing pro ball. In a roundabout way when I got here, I was like, 'Is this really happening?' You get up every day and still get to be a kid. I get to do what I enjoy for a job."

There are similarities between baseball training and the military in terms of the discipline needed, the schedules, the training.

"Preparation is key for everything," Lewis said. "If we're doing a mission or any type of training in the military, it's the same as going into a game. You lay down the foundation work and the practice and the training. When you get into a game situation, it's second nature and becomes muscle memory and it's 'Go Time.'"

One of the Cubs coaches described Lewis as a "man among boys."

"I'm not that much older," Lewis said. "I think I had to grow up a little bit quicker. There's a lot of guys in here who are much better pitchers than I am. But mentally, the things I've done and seen, I think it sets me apart, and I think mentally, I'm a lot stronger."

Last October during instructional league, Lewis talked to the other Minor Leaguers about the importance of teamwork. The Cubs hope to have him address the players again this spring. Lewis' goal now? To make the Cubs' 40-man roster. This year.

"It's obviously a track that not too many have ever [taken] before," Johnson said.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.