The legacy of the John Mozeliak regime is still being written, but with twelve (!) years as general manager of the Cardinals, certain trends have certainly emerged. One of the defining aspects of his tenure, if not THE defining aspect, is finding gold with seemingly mediocre prospects. Matt Carpenter is the obvious example, but even players like Jon Jay, middling prospect expected to be a fourth outfielder, ended up with nearly 10 WAR in his first five seasons as a Cardinal. David Freese, Allen Craig before he fell apart, and more recently Paul DeJong are other examples. There are many such players expected to be bench players (or not even that) who ended up being MLB quality starters or better for the Cardinals during his run.
With everyone in the infield locked up for the next 3+ years, a catcher of the future who is flying under nobody’s radar since Carson Kelly was traded, and four outfielders in the MLB right now who are under contract or team control for at least two more years, there really aren’t a whole lot spots for a player to emerge in the same way DeJong did. That’s not to say it can’t happen. There wasn’t a spot for Carpenter in the foreseeable future when he emerged, but he forced his way onto the team with his performance. The next player will have to do the same.
There are actually quite a few middle infield candidates in the high minors who could be the next middling prospect to surprise. Ramon Urias, Tommy Edman, and Edmundo Sosa would all be strong candidates in my personal bracket if they got the chance. Sosa is 1) young, 2) good at defense at SS and 3) swing change that added power to his game with no discernible effects to his plate discipline numbers. Urias has 1) out of this world numbers in both the Mexican League and AA and 2) not turning 25 until June. And Edman is, well, I just really liked his plate approach in Spring Training.
But... the infield is completely blocked. Jedd Gyorko is leaving after this season so a bench spot will open up, and I definitely don’t think Yairo Munoz or Drew Robinson have guaranteed spots, but solid bench player is well within all of those guys’ profiles so it wouldn’t really be the same as a DeJong or Carpenter.
No, may I present an admittedly less controversial pick than it probably would have been a week ago for the next surprise Cardinals prospect: Lane Thomas. Thomas has his work cut out for him. I still don’t really think Marcell Ozuna is re-signing with the Cards despite the fact that he may be back to his old self. Between Jose Martinez, Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson, there’s pretty likely to be 3-4 starters in that group next year and beyond. That’s not even mentioning longer shots like Randy Arozarena and Justin Williams. Any individual player may be a bad bet, but combining them together and I like the odds.
Who is Lane Thomas? Thomas was drafted out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014. While with the Blue Jays, he wasn’t exciting at all. He hit well at both rookie leagues the Jays sent him in his drafted year, but was a well below average hitter in Low A for his next season. He appears to have had some injuries problems in his 2016 season in Single A, but was overall an above average hitter. But he struck out over 30% of the time with not much power. In High A the next season, it was much the same: above average line, but not much projection with his performance: high strikeout, not much power guys in the low minors usually need to either stop striking out or add power.
The Cardinals scouts saw something in him that they liked, clearly. Statistically, there really isn’t much there, so give credit to the scouts for this one. The Cardinals weren’t going to spend international bonus pool money so they traded some of that to the Jays for Thomas. He played nine games for Palm Beach and it was not a very good nine games to finish 2017. Overall, Thomas was basically an average hitter and Palm Beach is a hellhole for hitters, so I imagine the Cardinals spent two seconds with the decision to promote him to Springfield for 2018.
You know that thing I said above where a hitter with Thomas’ profile either needs to stop striking out or hit for power. Well, he did both. After quickly escaping the rookie leagues, Thomas’ best K rate to that point was 26.3%. His highest career isolated power (slugging minus average) was .166 in Low A. For Springfield, his K rate sank to 23.2% and his ISO exploded to .227. He also, for good measure, improved his BB rate from his High A season. His wRC+ “only” improved from 103 to 123, but it certainly looked much more like a guy who could be something in the MLB. He got promoted to Memphis for 32 games, where his power and strikeouts were essentially the same, although he did walk half the amount. Since he’s walked 10 times in Memphis this year already, I’m not too worried about his patience.
Over at Hardball Times, there was a cool article over the offseason about finding sleeper prospects using adjusted flyball distance in the minors. (You should read that article if you have the time) The average flyball is hit around 275 feet, so an adjusted flyball distance of 100 is around 275 feet. It works the same as OPS+ and wRC+ in that above 100 is a greater distance than the average flyball and below 100 is a shorter distance. The writer in the piece looked for hitters with an adusted flyball distance of 107 or greater, which is in the top five percent of batters.
There appears to be a pretty good indicator of prospect success for hitters at AA or above who had an adjusted flyball distance of 112 or greater. For instance, in AA, here are all the hitters who achieved such a feat: Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant, Marcell Ozuna, Javier Baez, Joey Gallo, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Yoan Moncada, Dylan Cozens, and Hudson Potts. That’s the list. Lane Thomas is not on that list. Sorry to disappoint.
However, in his brief time in AAA last year, he was on the list of players with 112 or greater. Age is very important to distinguish the pretenders from the prospects, and luckily, Thomas was just 22 last season. Thomas is right around the same level as three other current MLBers: Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, and Joey Gallo, but with less swing and miss in his game than those three. Fun fact: Tyler O’Neill is also on this list with an adjusted flyball distance of 110. That is probably not a surprise though.
So Lane Thomas hits the ball far, has patience, has kept his strikeouts in check, and oh yeah, he’s fast as hell. And not for nothing, but his very, very small sample in the MLB has been extremely encouraging. Did I mention he plays CF? Cause he also plays CF. So his corner outfield defense should be just fine. Have I sufficiently excited you for Lane Thomas yet? Well, I’ve done all I can. In the meantime, let’s all appreciate all the exciting young outfield prospects the Cards have. (Have you seen Dylan Carlson’s moonshot yet?)