Lane Thomas made his MLB debut this season and played with no intentions of looking back. Thomas posted an fWAR of 0.7 (nearly half of Dexter Fowler’s 1.5 fWAR) in just 44 plate appearances (Fowler had 574). If this number is extrapolated into a full season’s worth of plate appearances (around 600), then Thomas would have posted a 9.5 WAR this season. So basically, the Cardinals have a nine win player ready to go for next season and all of their offensive problems have been solved. We can hope.
In all seriousness, small sample sizes are impossible to analyze, but Thomas’ mini-breakout at the MLB level was certainly surprising. The 24-year-old had posted a below average wRC+ of 97 in Memphis prior to his promotion at the end of July, and when he broke his wrist a month later his wRC+ had skyrocketed to 181. To make things even more difficult to judge, the outfielder finished the 2018 season solidly above average with a wRC+ of 123 in Springfield and 110 in Memphis.
Much of the change in Thomas’ wRC+ is due to the juiced ball that infected the game at the AAA level as he tallied similar numbers at the level in both years (.818 OPS in 2018 and .812 OPS in 2019). Interestingly, his power actually declined from 2018 to 2019 despite the new ball. His .192 ISO this season in Memphis is a far cry from his .221 ISO in AAA and .228 ISO in AA last season. However, after his promotion he crushed the ball, tallying a .368 wRC+ in the MLB. Obviously his MLB numbers are unsustainable, but this creates a question: how much power does Lane Thomas have?
When Thomas was drafted by the Blue Jays in the fifth round of the 2014 draft he appeared to have a lot of tools and was raw. This is understandable as he was drafted out of high school. Because of this, he made incremental progress in the Blue Jays system every season. However, by the time he was traded to the Cardinals in 2017 he was still playing at the A-Advanced level.
Thomas seemed to flip a switch after the trade. He clubbed 27 home runs in 2018 and jumped from being a mediocre A+-ball player to a strong AA/AAA player in less than a year. However, in his previous four minor league seasons, Thomas had only hit a combined 18 home runs and had never posted a ISO above .166 in a full season.
In summary, Thomas had minimal power for three years, a lot of power for one, and mediocre power last season, while raking in a small MLB sample. This presents a complex picture. Additionally, he appeared to have benefited from batted-ball luck in AAA this season (.343 BABIP), but not too much in his breakout 2018 (.305 BABIP) or his brief MLB cameo (.308 BABIP). This makes it difficult to tell what the true offensive profile of Lane Thomas looks like, so he will likely need to get more MLB at-bats under his belt before this becomes clear.
One area where he has shown realtive consistency is plate discipline. He appears to be a hitter that will strike out around 20-25 percent of the time and walk in about 8-10 percent of his at-bats. One of the reasons that the Blue Jays likely became disenchanted with him is his strikeout rate. In his final two years in their system he put up strikeouts percentages of around 30 percent.
However, since joining the Cardinals organization, he has improved his ability to recognize pitches and make more contact. In his first 39 plate appearances in the organization in 2017 he struck out at a 25.6 percent rate. Then, he improved in 2018, fanning just over 23 percent of the time. His strikeouts ticked up again in 2019 (26.3 percent in AAA), but he also posted his highest walk rate since playing rookie ball in 2014 (10.5 percent). Interestingly, his strikeout rate plummeted when he reached the majors, albeit in a small sample size. He fanned in a healthy 18.2 percent of his plate appearances and still walked at a decent clip (9.1 percent). Lots of rookies experience an inflated strikeout rate upon reaching the majors, so it is uncommon to see Thomas post the lowest strikeout rate of his career after his promotion. Of course, this is a small sample and he will almost surely see his strikeout rate rise again next season. However, this is an encouraging sign that shows that Thomas may be ready to handle a larger role next season.
Depending on the events of the off-season, Thomas will likely have a chance to compete for the fourth outfielder role at least. There will also be an extra roster spot next season as the 25-man roster is being replaced with the 26-man roster, so there will be even more opportunity.
Thomas’s defense and speed should be enough to allow him to provide some value, even if he suffers from heavy regression. However, if he could win a major league job out of spring training then it would be a great chance for Thomas to demonstrate his true hitting ability and clear up some of the ambiguous parts of his profile, namely his power. If he can prove that he has real power, or at least 15-20 home runs a year, in his bat then his strong defensive abilities could make him a starting caliber outfielder.
Thomas has shown enough tools to warrant a chance at real playing time next season; that would go a long way towards sorting through the bevy of young MLB-ready (or near MLB-ready) outfielders that are present in the Cardinals system.